Mind & Body

Newborns Are Way Smarter Than They Appear, According to Science

Tiny babies are no doubt adorable, but given the fact that they consider staring at the ceiling fan to be the height of entertainment and haven't yet figured out their hands are connected to their bodies, you could be forgiven for thinking they're also not (yet) terribly smart. But new research is starting to uncover that, when it comes to newborn brains, appearances can be deceiving.

Related Video: 9 Curious Facts About Babies

Your Baby Understands Physics

Traditionally, the problem with researching newborns has been that they're incredibly hard to study. They can't tell you what they're thinking. Heck, they can't even point yet. All they do is lay there. How can science possibly tease out what's going on in their heads? That's the subject of a long and fascinating recent article by science journalist Angela Saini in The Guardian.

The answer, Saini explains, is a combination of clever new techniques that analyze where an infant gazes, their responses to stimuli like images on a screen, and EEG machines that read their brain activity. And the results from these new approaches are revolutionizing how scientists think about infant cognition. In the memorable words of developmental psychologist and author Alison Gopnik, scientists are discovering that babies do not, as previously believed, have all the mental sophistication of a "crying carrot."

For instance, your baby may or may not be (as most parents believe) a budding Einstein, but he or she probably does understand some basic physics. "Looking-time studies have shown that [babies] stare longer at a toy car that seems to be moving through a solid wall than at actions that don't betray the laws of physics, implying that they find it odd when these universal rules are broken," reports Saini. (Don't brag to your friends just yet. Baby chicks apparently do the same.)

In other studies, babies show a surprising degree of rationality for beings that spend a lot of time sucking on their own toes. If you show them a cartoon shape behaving in odd ways — expending effort to avoid nonexistent obstacles, say — they show more surprise than when cartoons follow the rules of common sense.

Infants might even have some innate sense of probability. When psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley showed six-month-olds "a box filled with coloured balls, almost all of them pink and the rest yellow, babies watched longer when someone began picking more yellow balls out of the box than pink ones," writes Saini. "The experiment suggested that the babies knew to expect more pink balls and were surprised when that wasn't what happened."

A Word of Caution

All of this will have some proud parents exclaiming, "I told you so!" Others will look over at their beloved drooler, scratch their heads, and wonder, "Physics? Really?" Which pretty much mirrors the state of the research at the moment. This is new, cutting-edge science, so arguments about interpretation abound.

Pretty much every expert agrees that infants learn at an astonishing rate, but there's controversy about how much of an understanding of the world we're born with and how much we pick up in our first few frenzied months of development. And as with any study into eye-catching subjects, some researchers worry that the media is way out ahead of the actual science.

"Clever-baby studies get published in the popular press far more than those that confirm the apparently stupid things that children do," psychologist Gert Westermann cautions Saini.

But those caveats aside, the basic takeaway of the latest research on babies is clear: your little bundle of joy may appear to spend her days doing little more than sleeping, eating, and pooping, but inside her brain, there's a frenzy of activity. It's helping her build sophisticated concepts of the world far earlier than you'd ever guess just by looking at her cute little face.

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Learn how your child's brain is wired to help them flourish in the New York Times bestseller "The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind," by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson. The audiobook is free with a trial of Audible. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Jessica Stillman October 31, 2018

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