Infants Are Self-Conscious

InfantsNew research aims to prove that infants are self-conscious. In order to survive in society it is necessary to have self-awareness. The old belief was that newborn infants did not possess this ability. Researchers suggested that this skill did not develop until somewhere between the ages of 1 and 3.

Are the researcher’s in this new study making a mistake in their assessment? It is ironic that in some experiments a baby looking at something for a long period is believed to indicate confusion but in this study it is thought to indicate comprehension.

To anyone who has interacted with a newborn infant it is obvious that they are quite mystified by their surroundings. Babies can stare for hours at shadows or rotating fan blades. They can only communicate by crying and are more dependent on their caretakers than any other species.

Their lack of speech makes them very difficult to understand and study. Researchers often have to be very creative to test infant abilities. Past research used mirrors and an alteration to a child’s appearance, like a mark on their forehead, to see if they responded. If a child touched his forehead as if to remove the strange mark he was believed to have reached this milestone. This was thought to happen at 18 months.  A report released by Current Biology attempts to challenge this assumption.

Researchers took 20 healthy newborns and showed them a video of another baby’s face being touched with a paintbrush while their own was touched simultaneously. The babies demonstrated more interest when their face and the face of the baby in the video were touched at exactly the same time than when there was a time delay. When the images were presented upside down they seemed equally disinterested presumably because what they were seeing was dissimilar.

The amount of time they stare at the image is believed to indicate interest. In this study the researchers conclude that the infants are self-conscious. However, this may be an erroneous conclusion.

In a famous study on object permanence infants stare longer at a scenario that defies their understanding. A track with a ramp is set up in front of the child. The experimenters place a divider between the child and the track and then roll a cart down the track. Children watch as the cart disappears behind the divider but rolls out on the other side. Then an obstacle is put on top of the track while the child watches. The divider is replaced and then the experimenters remove the obstacle unbeknownst to the child. The cart again emerges on the other side of the divider. Children stare at this scenario much longer appearing to try to figure out how the train was able to continue past the obstacle.

Infants may be much more intelligent than we can understand but it is hard to know what they are thinking prior to language acquisition. Both studies are very creative. However, concluding that infants are self-conscious because they look at another babies face being touched in a way similar to their own may be inaccurate. They may just be perplexed by what is a strange scenario.

By: Lara Stielow

NBC News

Science Daily

Psychology Today

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