From Blobs to Beings: An Overview of Research on Baby Brains

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Over the last hundred years there has been a monumental shift in how the scientific community sees babies. Neuroscientists and clinical psychologists now deem young children worthy of study and through their studies we have gained a wealth of information about brain development. This shift from seeing babies as blobs, to babies as beings undergoing a crucial stage of development, has been slower outside the fields of science and academy.This is unfortunate because every day people have the opportunity to interact with babies and are able to observe firsthand how babies grow and develop. These observations can result in an appreciation for the importance of enriching early childhood experiences.

What follows is an overview of brain research. It starts by discussing some overarching theories and moves into a breakdown of some of the newest findings. Hopefully this body of work will inspire you to take a new look at babies and discover that they are fascinating beings.

Ted Talks offers a series of five videos in a playlist called “Genius of Babies”. Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist and author of The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind, The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life, and The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children, is one of the speakers highlighted. During her Ted Talk, titled “What Do Babies Think?”, she makes the argument that babies are born as scientists who actively conduct experiments to learn about the world around them.

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Cognitive brain scientist, Laura Shultz explains “The surprisingly logical minds of babies”. Shultz notes that babies’ brains have to be very powerful because “they are figuring out their entire world.” She concludes her Ted Talk by saying:

In the years to come, we’re going to see technological innovations beyond anything I can even envision, but we are very unlikely to see anything even approximating the computational power of a human child in my lifetime or in yours. If we invest in these most powerful learners and their development, in babies and children and mothers and fathers and caregivers and teachers the way we invest in our other most powerful and elegant forms of technology, engineering and design, we will not just be dreaming of a better future, we will be planning for one.

Researchers have noted the importance of babies’ exposure to both language and stimulation. Dana Suskind, a surgeon who routinely performed cochlear implants, wrote the book Thirty Million Words: Building A Child’s Brain. Suskind begins with the premise made famous by Betty Hart and Todd Risley’s paper “The Early Catastrophe”, which was published in the early 2000s and describes the thirty million word gap. Children in lower socioeconomic backgrounds have heard thirty million less words than their peers from high socioeconomic backgrounds by age three. According to Suskind, some children thrived after receiving a cochlear implant, while others did not and she discovered that the children who thrived heard millions and millions more words. In addition to regularly hearing words, a new study from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology “Babies Exposed to Stimulation Get a Brain Boost”. The study highlights the importance of actively challenging young children as well as stimulating their senses.

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Another recent baby brain study to note is from the University of Miami about how “Mothers and infants connect through song”. The study noted the mother’s ability to change the pitch or the tempo to keep the infant engaged in the song. Another interesting study looked at how babies’ sight develops. According to the study from the University of Oslo, babies who are 2 to 3 days old can see emotions on a human face from a distance of 30 cm, but at 60 cm the faces become too blurry to detect any facial details.

There should be plenty more interesting neuroscience studies in the future. In fact, the researches from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have adapted MRI machines to make them more baby-friendly by making the MRI seat more like a car seat so the baby is more comfortable. The newly adapted MRI machines also have a mirror that allows the baby to watch videos and provides a space for the parent or researcher to sit next to the baby while the baby is getting an MRI. These adaptations have allowed researchers to discover more about how babies’ brains work. It has led to findings that the same part of a baby’s brain responds to images of faces as in an adult’s brain, which has allowed researchers to conclude that babies’ brains and adult brains are more similar than previously thought.  

As an educator, this wealth of information on how babies’ brains develop has impacted my practice. Research tells us that babies and young children need to be exposed to variety of subjects, materials, and situations. One wonderful way to expose babies and young children to new environments is to take them to museums and to explore the collections and watch their brains make connections and grow. Scientific research has shown the importance of exposure in early childhood and I am hopeful that one day this knowledge will permeate even into our everyday thinking.