Researchers Provide New Insight into the Mysteries of Infant Consciousness

Mysteries of Infant Consciousness: Researchers Provide New Insight | The Lifesciences Magazine

Together with partners in Australia, Germany, and the USA, a multinational research team from Trinity College Dublin has found evidence that points to the possibility of infant consciousness, maybe even in the later stages of pregnancy.

The study’s authors claim that it has important ramifications for clinical treatment, ethics, and possibly even the law. It was published in the peer-reviewed journal Trends in Cognitive Science.

The researchers contend in their paper, “Consciousness in the cradle: on the emergence of infant experience,” that an infant’s developing brain is capable of conscious experiences from birth, experiences that can leave a lasting impression on the infant’s evolving sense of self and comprehension of their surroundings.

Recognising Infant Consciousness

The group included philosophers and neuroscientists from Trinity College Dublin, University of Tübingen in Germany, University of Minnesota in the United States, and Monash University in Australia.

Since babies are unable to communicate their thoughts or feelings to us, infant consciousness—despite the fact that we were all once babies—remains a mystery. This is explained by Dr. Tim Bayne, one of the paper’s two principal authors and a philosophy professor at Monash University in Melbourne.

Almost everyone who has ever handled a newborn has at some point wondered what it’s like to be a baby. Naturally, though, we are unable to recall our early years, and scholars studying consciousness have differed as to when consciousness first appears—at birth or soon after—or “late”—by the time a person reaches one year of age or beyond.

Approach and Results

The researchers expanded on previous developments in consciousness science to offer a fresh viewpoint on the emergence of infant consciousness. Certain markers from brain imaging are being used more and more in science and health because they can accurately distinguish awareness from its absence in adulthood. This is the first instance of evaluating an infant consciousness by an examination of these signs.

“Our findings suggest that newborns can integrate sensory and developing cognitive responses into coherent conscious experiences to understand the actions of others and plan their own responses,” said Lorina Naci, co-author of the study and head of Trinity’s “Consciousness and Cognition Group.”

The article also discusses “what it is like” to be a newborn. For example, we know that a baby’s vision is far more developed than their hearing. Additionally, research reveals that infants are less conscious of objects than adults are at any one moment and may take longer to absorb what is in front of them, but they are better capable of processing a wider variety of information than their older self, including noises from different languages.

Reference: “Consciousness in the cradle: on the emergence of infant experience” by Tim Bayne, Joel Frohlich, Rhodri Cusack, Julia Moser and Lorina Naci, 12 October 2023, Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

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