When Does Your Baby Become Conscious?
For everyone who’s looked into an infant’s sparkling eyes and wondered what goes on in its little fuzzy head, there’s now an answer. New research shows that babies display glimmers of consciousness and memory as early as 5 months old.
For decades, neuroscientists have been searching for an unmistakable signal of consciousness in electrical brain activity. Such a sign could determine whether minimally conscious or anesthetized adults are aware—and when consciousness begins in babies.
Studies on adults show a particular pattern of brain activity: When your senses detect something, such as a moving object, the vision center of your brain activates, even if the object goes by too fast for you to notice. But if the object remains in your visual field for long enough, the signal travels from the back of the brain to the prefrontal cortex, which holds the image in your mind long enough for you to notice. Scientists see a spike in brain activity when the senses pick something up, and another signal, the “late slow wave,” when the prefrontal cortex gets the message. The whole process takes less than one-third of a second.
Researchers in France wondered if such a two-step pattern might be present in infants. The team monitored infants’ brain activity through caps fitted with electrodes. More than 240 babies participated, but two-thirds were too squirmy for the movement-sensitive caps. The remaining 80 (ages 5 months, 12 months, or 15 months) were shown a picture of a face on a screen for a fraction of a second.