For a long time, we didn’t give young babies the credit they deserved for being eager young scientists. We treated them as if they were in some developmental stage of limbo, waiting to awake from a Sleeping Beauty-like state of not-quite-being.
Now we know that we were totally underestimating the abilities of babies. A growing body of research indicates that babies are much more tuned into their environment than we realized. Here’s what we’ve learned from five recent studies about babies.
Babies are tuned into Channel Mom. Researchers from the University of Montreal and the Sainte-Justine University Hospital Research Centre have discovered that the part of a baby’s brain that is responsible for language is activated in unique and powerful ways when a baby hears the sound of his mother’s voice. To make this discovery, the researchers applied electrodes to the heads of 16 newborn babies while they were sleeping and tracked the babies’ reactions while their mothers and female nurses took turns making vowel sounds. The brain scans indicated that the infants — who were less than 24 hours old at the time — could already recognize their mothers’ voices.
Babies can speak dog. Or, to be more precise, they can interpret the meaning of dog barks — even if they have never been around dogs. Researchers from Brigham Young University found that babies as young as six months of age are able to match the sounds of an angry snarl and a friendly yap with photos of dogs that appear either threatening or friendly. In other words, they can interpret the emotions associated with sounds.
Babies understand the law of the jungle. Psychologists at Harvard University designed an experiment for babies in which two blocks of different size came into conflict. (These blocks had human facial features and wanted to pass by one another.) Babies aged eight to ten months expressed surprise if the bigger block stepped aside to let the smaller block pass by. They expected the bigger block to get its way because of its size.
Babies have a strong sense of justice. A study led by Professor Kiley Hamlin of The University of British Columbia department of psychology found that babies don’t mind seeing people punished if those people have acted poorly; and that they don’t like to see people who have behaved badly being rewarded. The researchers used a series of puppets and monitored the reactions of 100 babies to reach this conclusion. They found that the desire to see justice served kicks in when babies are about eight months of age.
Babies can tell jokes. Babies know how to tell jokes even before they can talk. A baby’s idea of a joke? To pretend to hand a toy to another child, only to snatch that toy away from the other child at the last minute. (For maximum hilarity, do this repeatedly.) Researchers at Australia’s Charles Sturt University were able to pick up on this behaviour (which occurs by age 12 months) by studying footage shot from tiny cameras (“babycams”) mounted to hats or headbands worn by babies in childcare.
So there you have it — the latest evidence that your baby is, if not a genius, at least very smart. The grandparents will definitely be impressed.