When Do Babies Become Conscious? New Research May Have an Answer

Written by Camilla Jessen

Mar.25 - 2024 7:19 PM CET

Photo: Shutterstock.com
Photo: Shutterstock.com
Researchers are paving a new path to understand when consciousness begins in human infants, challenging centuries-old questions about the human mind.

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A New Approach to an Age-Old Question

The debate on when humans first become conscious has perplexed philosophers and psychologists for hundreds of years. René Descartes, a seventeenth-century French philosopher, speculated that infants might possess thoughts, though simpler than those of adults. Today, this question remains as intriguing as ever.

However, Dr. Henry Taylor and Professor Andrew Bremner from the University of Birmingham propose a novel method in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences to identify the emergence of consciousness in infants.

Their approach suggests looking for markers of consciousness in adults and then identifying when these markers begin to appear in babies.

"imagine that in adults, we know that a certain very specific behaviour, or a specific pattern of brain activation always comes along with consciousness. Then, if we can identify when this behaviour or brain activation arises in babies, we have good reason to think that this is when consciousness emerges in babies. Behaviours and brain activations like this are what we call 'markers' of consciousness," explains Dr. Taylor.

This strategy could provide concrete evidence of consciousness emerging in infancy, sidestepping the challenge of infants' inability to communicate their experiences.

Bridging the Gap in Infant Research

The complexity of this research lies in the varying ages at which different markers of consciousness appear.

While some markers identified by researchers, such as Prof. Tim Bayne and colleagues, suggest consciousness emerges as early as the last prenatal trimester, others indicate it may not develop until around one year of age or even later.

Professor Bremner emphasizes the importance of a comprehensive approach, considering a wide range of markers from early and late stages of development.

"It is really hard to establish when babies become conscious. This is mostly because infants can't report their experiences and, as most parents will know, can be rather uncooperative particularly when it comes to experimental tasks," he stated.

"As we can't just ask babies when they become conscious, the best approach is to try to identify a broad range of markers of consciousness, which appear in early development and late development, and then group them together, this could help us identify when consciousness emerges."

By grouping these markers, the researchers hope to shed light on a question that has puzzled humanity for millennia. However, they caution that the answer to when consciousness first emerges may not be straightforward.

This innovative research could not only advance our understanding of infant development but also deepen our grasp of consciousness itself.

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