The Frontal Cortex

What is it like to be a baby?

My latest article for the Boston Globe Ideas section is now online. This piece was inspired by my brand new beautiful nephew, Jude Lehrer – may this blog post increase your Google presence!

What is it like to be a baby? For centuries, this question would have seemed absurd: behind that adorable facade was a mostly empty head. A baby, after all, is missing most of the capabilities that define the human mind, such as language and the ability to reason. Rene Descartes argued that the young child was entirely bound by sensation, hopelessly trapped in the confusing rush of the here and now. A newborn, in this sense, is just a lump of need, a bundle of reflexes that can only eat and cry. To think like a baby is to not think at all.

Modern science has largely agreed, spending decades outlining all the things that babies couldn’t do because their brains had yet to develop. They were unable to focus, delay gratification, or even express their desires. The Princeton philosopher Peter Singer famously suggested that “killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all.”

Now, however, scientists have begun to dramatically revise their concept of a baby’s mind. By using new research techniques and tools, they’ve revealed that the baby brain is abuzz with activity, capable of learning astonishing amounts of information in a relatively short time. Unlike the adult mind, which restricts itself to a narrow slice of reality, babies can take in a much wider spectrum of sensation – they are, in an important sense, more aware of the world than we are.

This hyperawareness comes with several benefits. For starters, it allows young children to figure out the world at an incredibly fast pace. Although babies are born utterly helpless, within a few years they’ve mastered everything from language – a toddler learns 10 new words every day – to complex motor skills such as walking. According to this new view of the baby brain, many of the mental traits that used to seem like developmental shortcomings, such as infants’ inability to focus their attention, are actually crucial assets in the learning process.

In fact, in some situations it might actually be better for adults to regress into a newborn state of mind. While maturity has its perks, it can also inhibit creativity and lead people to fixate on the wrong facts. When we need to sort through a lot of seemingly irrelevant information or create something completely new, thinking like a baby is our best option.

If you’re interested in learning more about the baby brain, I highly recommend the work of Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist and philosopher at UC-Berkeley. I just finished reading her forthcoming book, The Philosophical Baby, which is an utterly fascinating investigation of what we can learn about being human from the baby brain.


  1. #1 Gary Gurney
    April 26, 2009

    It’s nice to hear advice to “think like a baby”, and I would agree. But how to do it?

    As a long term meditator, it’s clear to me, through my experience and the long experience of others, that it’s very, very difficult to change habits of the mind. Do those habits only occur at the level of thought, or do they also reflect on how we sense the world on a pre-verbal level?

    A psychologist named Les Fehmi Ph.D (himself a long-time meditator) has, for years, been questioning HOW we pay attention, and has done research on it’s effect on our nervous systems. There is an assumption that paying attention means focusing, and that is true. But to what extent do we focus and how “wide” is that focus? It seems to me that the baby’s “thinking” (a term I find a bit sloppy, but that’s another discussion) is closer to what Fehmi calls “Open Focus”.

    Indeed, the difference between paying attention with a tight focus (on details), and paying attention with increased “width” (less detail oriented attention, more whole sensing), not only has effects on the mind and its activity (thinking), it also has measurable effects on the body.

    Tight focus tends to stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, while open focus encourages parasympathetic activity. This type of attention does not simply change thinking, it changes perception and the lived experience, and what type and how much information is available to us. Learning Open Focus involves changing how we pay attention to our fives senses, our bodies first, and with time and experience thoughts themselves. Do we use focal vision primarily, or peripheral vision? For tasks like typing this response, focal vision will dominate because of the nature of the activity. Using focal vision stimulates the sympathetics, while using predominantly peripheral vision tends toward parasympathetic activity. This orientation works for all aspects of our senses, not just vision.

    According to Fehmi, we are as a culture addicted to tight, narrowly focused attention and the result is a host of physical and mental health problems, because perpetually tight focus leads to chronic stress on our nervous systems. Our bodies evolved using the tight focus much less than we use it now, and our culture has developed its activities around this type of attention. This is not necessarily bad, but it does have its consequences.

    I think it’s one of the reasons many people enjoy being out in natural settings and find time there refreshing and restorative. The natural world is stimulating in a way that encourages a wider field of attention in all of the senses, and so naturally encourages open focus type attention.

  2. #2 Patricia Rooney
    April 27, 2009

    Loved the Globe article. Really eye-opening.

  3. #3 OftenWrongTed
    April 28, 2009

    What’s it like to be a baby? I like to think that it is living in the present. In “East Coker”, T. S. Eliot wrote the phrase “the intense moment isolated”, perhaps this is what it is like.

  4. #4 Elizabeth
    April 28, 2009

    Jill Bolte Taylor is an anatomy professor who had a stroke (from an arterial-venous malformation) at age 37. Her book, MY STROKE of INSIGHT, contains some comments about having to learn things like ‘the color of objects might contain meaning.’ That’s a bit rudimentary for most adults, and probably children. Perhaps a look see for those interested in nascent brain functions.

  5. #5 Courtney
    April 29, 2009

    Other suggested reads:
    – The Scientist in the Crib
    – What’s Going on in There?
    – The Female Brain
    – Why Love Matters by Sue Gerhardt
    – The Science of Parenting by Margot Sunderland
    – Our Babies, Ourselves by Meredith Small
    – Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves by Naomi Aldort
    – Mother Nature by Sarah Hrdy
    – The Vital Touch by Sharon Heller
    – Positive Discipline: The First Three Years by Jane Nelsen, Erwin, and Duffy
    – Parenting for Primates by Dr. Harriet J. Smith
    – Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman
    – Pediatric Nutrition Handbook
    – Emotional Life of the Toddler
    – A Toddler’s Life: Becoming a Person
    – Montessori from the Start

  6. #6 Ennio
    April 29, 2009

    There is a talk by Michael Merzenich: Exploring the re-wiring of the brain

    One of the first things he says, is that a babies brain is born ‘stupid’. I disagree with this man and recently had read your globe article. I hope you get to explore the video and this guys limited and narrow view on the capability of the human mind.

  7. #7 Mike
    April 29, 2009

    While I enjoyed the discussion in this article, I have to take issue with several of the points made.

    Babies undoubtedly display an astonishing amount of cortical plasticity. However, there is no evidence that they are “hyperaware”. Not being able to tune out distractions is more likely to make sensory perception a confused mess than increase awareness. Not to mention, their sensory cortices have not yet adapted to their sensory inputs, so many of the things we take for granted when perceiving the outside world (being able to separate discrete objects, sources of sound, etc.) are impossible for a newborn. All of this would cause the world to appear as a constant barrage of meaningless stimuli (which may explain all the crying!).

    Recent developments in treatments for cataracts allowed restoration of vision to people who had been blind since an early age. What the doctors found was that patients who became blind very early (1-4 years of age) were unable to see properly despite having their cataracts cleared, presumably because their visual cortex had been frozen in the earlier state.

    Alison Gopnik compares a baby’s experience to a traveler or someone watching a riveting movie. But if that were true, you would expect that we would remember some of our infant experiences, the way we have heightened memory for our travels or especially interesting movies. Instead, our early childhoods are largely missing from our memory banks. Thus, given everything we know about the sensory experience of infants, “thinking like a baby” would probably be much more akin to the hallucinogenic confusion of a nonsensical dream, the kind that fades soon after waking, than any sort of hyperawareness.

  8. #8 joel
    April 30, 2009

    this is a very interesting information about the brain of a baby. everyday we learn new things, but in a slow rate. the baby brain is the most absorb most information that it can.

  9. #9 Beverly Feldt
    April 30, 2009

    Gary Gurney makes a wonderful point about type of focus. Some Tibetan Dzogchen teachers recommend a relaxed gaze for meditation, taking in the entire visual field. I first tried this while walking around my neighborhood and experienced an astonishingly different way of being. The gaze is similar to the one used when looking at stereograms, those “Magic Eye” 3-D designs. I think these two modes of focus relate directly to what Jill Bolte Taylor (mentioned in Elizabeth’s comment) calls “left brain” and “right brain.” For me, it was a revelation that I didn’t need to focus narrowly and relentlessly just to survive. It’s actually very easy to walk down a city street safely using “wide vision,” and I find it much more pleasant.

  10. #10 George
    May 2, 2009

    Fascinating article. It would be a great thing for parents all over if this article became the first in a series that looked at the track of the “normal” developmental milestones in the first few years of life, using your niece’s developmental experiences and perhaps a few of her cohort.

  11. ‘The Princeton philosopher Peter Singer famously suggested that “killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all.”‘ Interesting statement. It’s like another ‘pro’ for the debate of abortion and euthanasia in one sentence.
    Being (or rather becoming) a man is a process that starts not on the day of birth, but long before, when new life is formed. From the very beginnig, even in womb foetus recives varied stimuli that make the brain develop. This way birth is just another step in the process of learning about environment – from indirect reception to direct interactions (as it is mature enough). That’s normal for any animal called ‘nestling’, and doesn’t mean, that newborn is lower form of life.
    And it’s ‘only’ a matter of opinion what we consider to be a man.

  12. #12 Russell
    May 3, 2009

    Actually, the fetal brain, even the day before birth, functions quite differently from the newborn infant’s brain. The low amount of oxygen the fetus receives through the placenta doesn’t allow the kind of brain activity that starts taking place after birth. Which is good, since the womb doesn’t provide much stimulus.

    I understand the pro-life crowd is desperate to pretend that birth is nothing but a change of place. That simply isn’t so. Birth is a biologically significant event, and the newborn infant is developing in ways that the fetus is not.

  13. #13 Dubrovski
    May 3, 2009

    It is worth pointing out: Why would anyone perform unnecessary, un-anaesthetized, ritual surgery without consent on a hyper-aware person? Imagine the pain and trauma; imagine the confusion and betrayal. That is a brutal early lesson.

    Yet circumcisions are performed every day.

  14. #14 Jesse M.
    May 4, 2009

    In addition to what Russell mentioned, it should be pointed out that the synapses connecting the neurons in the brain of the fetus don’t even develop until around the end of the second trimester, so if you believe consciousness is dependent on brain activity the fetus would presumably be completely unconscious before that point.

  15. #15 Pole top pins
    May 8, 2009

    I like to think that it is living in the present.

  16. #16 camp
    April 15, 2011

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