The Frontal Cortex

Are Babies Extra-Conscious?

An intriguing hypothesis:

Gopnik argues that babies are not only conscious, they are more conscious than adults. Her argument for this view begins with the idea that people in general — adults, that is — have more conscious experience of what they attend to than of what they disregard. We have either no experience, or limited experience, of the hum of the refrigerator in the background or the feeling of the shoes on our feet, until we stop to think about it. In contrast, when we expertly and automatically do something routine (such as driving to work on the usual route) we are often barely conscious at all, it seems. (I think the issue is complex, though.)

When we attend to something, the brain regions involved exhibit more cholinergic activity, become more plastic and open to new information. We learn more and lay down new memories. What we don’t attend to, we often hardly learn about at all.

Baby brains, Gopnik says, exhibit a much broader plasticity than adults’ and have a general neurochemistry similar to the neurochemistry involved in adult attention. Babies learn more quickly than we do, and about more things, and pick up more incidental knowledge outside a narrow band of attention. Gopnik suggests that we think of attention, in adults, as something like a mechanism that turns part of our mature and slow-changing brains, for a brief period, flexible, quick learning, and plastic — baby-like — while suppressing change in the rest of the brain.

So what is it like to be a baby? According to Gopnik, it’s something like attending to everything at once: There’s much less of the reflexive and ignored, the non-conscious, the automatic and expert. She suggests that the closest approximation adults typically get to baby-like experience is when they are in completely novel environments, such as very different cultures, where everything is new.

That’s from The Splintered Mind, which is a really interesting blog. You can learn about Alison Gopnik here. (Yes, she is the sister of Adam.)

[Hat Tip: Marginal Revolution]

Comments

  1. #1 Dunc
    June 27, 2007

    Well, it rather depends on what you mean by “conscious”, doesn’t it? Given that definition I’d agree, but I’m not sure it’s the only definition. For example, we often use the term “conscious” more-or-less as a synonym for “deliberate”…

    She suggests that the closest approximation adults typically get to baby-like experience is when they are in completely novel environments, such as very different cultures, where everything is new.

    I dunno – I reckon LSD can get you closer than that. ;)

  2. #2 Enigman
    June 27, 2007

    When I’m startled by something very new, I hesitate before acting, as though whilst not being conscious of it I was processing much information. Similarly, I bet that when we are asleep we do a lot of information processing. What babies appear to be, in short, is asleep!

  3. #3 coturnix
    June 27, 2007

    Brother or sister of Adam?

  4. #4 Jonah
    June 27, 2007

    Whoops. That’s embarassing. Thanks for the correction, coturnix.

  5. #5 otakucode
    July 3, 2007

    I imagine being a baby is like being consumed by chaos. All of your senses firing at once, no definition to anything at all, just great noxious clouds of sound, smell, color, and tactile sensations. As your mom comes over, the cloud takes on a perhaps pinkish tint that coaxes a bit of pleasure from your brain. When she moves away, the pleasure subsides and the wash of chaos moves back in. If you wanted to simulate it as an adult, I’d think the best way would be to create some glasses of a very powerful and very wrong prescription, perhaps with multiple lenses, maybe even moving. Turn on 16 televisions at once to 16 different foreign language stations and turn them all up to full volume. Put on oversized mittens, and get near-blackout drunk. That’s what being a baby is like. I think animals are nearly the same, experiencing everything in a haze with simple ‘over here is nicer’ intuitions and nothing else.