Curious Parents

Even Babies' Brains Are Primed to Recognize Time

Imagine, just for a moment, that time didn't exist. Instead of alarm clocks, meal times and deadlines, your life is just one big blur of diaper changes. That's right—this is just how time for you when you were a newborn baby. Research shows that while we aren't born with a strict sense of time, our brains are certainly primed for it. In fact, even 1-month-olds show a primitive sense of time. (Only one month of schedule-free bliss!)

Counting The Seconds

A 1972 study found that babies can perceive "simple temporal intervals" soon after birth. What does this mean, exactly? Researchers placed a group of 1-month-olds into a room and turned off a light every 20 seconds. After the final 20-second period, they left the light on—but the babies' pupils still expanded, suggesting that their brains were anticipating the light change.

In many ways, the ability to sense time is like your ability to move around—first you crawl, then you toddle, then you walk, and eventually you can do things like dance and play soccer. For example, a 2010 study found that babies as young as 6 months old can differentiate between two seconds and four seconds (a 1:2 ratio). By 10 months, they can identify durations that differ by a ratio of 2:3, like the the difference between 10 and 15 seconds. Interestingly enough, that skill doesn't significantly improve any further until age 8 or older.

Toddler Time Warp

If you've ever heard an "Are we there yet?" screamed from the back seat, you might be wondering why your 3 or 4 year old is so bad at estimating time. Well, according to the The Science Of Us, researchers think that's because your little one's sense of time is solely implicit, and they haven't yet developed explicit judgments of time. That is, if they've gotten a snack every few minutes on that car ride, they know to expect another in a few minutes. But if you tell them you'll reach grandma's house in 15 minutes, they won't be able to comprehend it. In other words, it's a confusing time to be alive. (And perhaps a frustrating time for you.)

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Written by Curiosity Staff June 13, 2017

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