When Do Babies Begin to Be Conscious?

Summary: Researchers propose a new approach to determine when consciousness emerges in infancy. Their suggestion, based on identifying markers of consciousness in adults and tracking when these markers appear in babies’ development, offers a potential pathway to understand this long-standing question.

The approach includes looking for specific behaviors or brain activation patterns known to correlate with consciousness in adults and then finding when these begin in infants. By identifying and grouping a broad range of markers present in early and late development, the researchers aim to pinpoint the emergence of consciousness more accurately. This method could provide insights into the complex process of becoming conscious, despite challenges like the inability of infants to communicate their experiences.

Key Facts:

  1. The new method proposes identifying adult markers of consciousness and tracking their appearance in infants.
  2. Researchers aim to group a wide range of developmental markers to pinpoint when consciousness emerges.
  3. The approach addresses the challenge of studying consciousness in non-verbal subjects like infants.

Source: University of Birmingham

Academics are proposing a new and improved way to help researchers discover when consciousness emerges in human infancy.

When over the course of development do humans become conscious? When the seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes was asked about infant consciousness by his critics, he eventually suggested that infants might have thoughts, albeit ones that are simpler than those of adults.

Hundreds of years later, the issue of when human beings become conscious is a question which remains a challenge for psychologists and philosophers alike. 

This shows a baby.
Based on this, the study argues that consciousness emerges early (from the last prenatal trimester). Credit: Neuroscience News

But now, in response to a recent article in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, two academics from the University of Birmingham have suggested an improved way to help scientists and researchers identify when babies become conscious. 

In a Letter to the Editor, also published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Dr Henry Taylor, Associate Professor of Philosophy, and Andrew Bremner, Professor of Developmental Psychology, have explored a new approach which is being proposed, that involves identifying markers of consciousness in adults, and then measuring when babies start to exhibit larger numbers of these in development.

Dr Taylor says: “For example, 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.”

This kind of approach is desperately needed since babies (unlike adults) cannot tell you what they are conscious of. Professor Bremner said: “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.

“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.”

In the recent article the researchers (Prof. Tim Bayne and colleagues) suggested four specific markers of consciousness, some of which are present in the late stages of gestation, and others which are found in early infancy. Based on this, the study argues that consciousness emerges early (from the last prenatal trimester).

But Professor Bremner and Dr Taylor say that this ignores other markers of consciousness. Previous research has identified a separate cluster of markers. These include: 

•    Pointing (bringing a social partner’s attention to an object and checking). 
•    Intentional control (intentional means-end coordination of actions – e.g., pulling a support to retrieve a distal object). 
•    Explicit memory (deferred imitation of actions).

Dr Taylor said: “One of the complicated issues is that it does not look like all the markers point to the same age for the emergence of consciousness. The ones mentioned by Bayne and colleagues suggest somewhere between the third trimester of pregnancy and early infancy, but other markers suggest the age might be around one year old.

“In fact, at the really extreme end, some markers only emerge at around 3-4 years. Because there are so many different markers of consciousness which appear in early and late development it is extremely hard to come to a conclusion.”

Professor Bremner concluded: “We propose that a broad approach to markers, including those that emerge in early and late stage, is needed. We also recommend that a range of developmental models of the onset of consciousness should be considered.

“For instance, it may be that some markers emerge in one cluster in early development, with others in a later cluster. As well as this there may be a continuous and gradual emergence of certain markers stretching over gestation and throughout early life. 

“We think that by clustering this broad selection of markers, we may finally be able to answer the question which has given us pause for thought for thousands of years. But it’s important to bear in mind that the answer may not be a simple one!”

About this consciousness and neurodevelopment research news

Author: Tony Moran
Source: University of Birmingham
Contact: Tony Moran – University of Birmingham
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: The findings will appear in Trends in Cognitive Science

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  1. There seems to be some people who have not had relationships with infants. And so apparently do not know that infants nonverbally communicate awareness as much as do adults. Including newborns.

  2. My kid was pointing and saying single words at 5 months of age, and by 8 months, he was speaking in sentences. He’s creeping up on 40 now, but turned out to be a bonafide genius. I think he was born conscious and began learning even before he came out of the womb. These types of studies fascinate me.

    1. Yes. As a Nanny for most of my adult life, and even growing up I babysat the world starting at 7-8 yea old so I know for a fact babies are born conscious! Their little brains are developing so fast each day and since they don’t know language day one they recognize what words mean by inflection, by so many things! They are pure little innocent beings tho and everything we do and say has an effect on these little sponges! That’s why it’s so important to be careful what you say around your kids and mind what you do bc they are listening and watching and whatever you do and say they believe are 100% ok!! Babies are all so unique! Some develop early some later, they are SO individualistic little creatures. The more you talk to them and relate to them, ask their opinion, include them, respect them etc the more they will blossom!! Good job Mama at making a genius!!

  3. I have a an idea. Maybe the consciousness of the infant happens as they reach certain milestones due to nutritional factors and it doesn’t necessarily happen all at once maybe it still happening even to the age of about 20 or so.Maybe the visual patterns of the developing brain or conscious child appear as smaller changes in a consistent environment. I think that maybe proving that a conscious mind is accumulated over time and development with a consistent environment as we observe patterns around us, are the markers of our predetermined addictive behavior as well as conscious milestones. I don’t know what any of that would mean, if someone could prove it though. The best of luck to you in your endeavors whoever you are future predetermined addiction proven brain patterns during nutritional milestones sometime after an immune system(not long after being born) built up until early twenties in smaller groups or clusters of visual consciousness of a human is going to be a bumpy ride!.lol

  4. In some respects, this is a very confusing article. For example, “As we can’t just ask babies when they become conscious,” the word baby is not scientific. Infant or newborn are well defined. Babies – who knows.
    “In the recent article the researchers (Prof. Tim Bayne and colleagues) suggested four specific markers of consciousness, some of which are present in the late stages of gestation, and others which are found in early infancy.” Just because the markers are present does not justify the researchers that that is when they started. They could have started earlier but were not located, found, etc.
    “Based on this, the study argues that consciousness emerges early (from the last prenatal trimester).
    What is meant by “from the last trimester?” Does it mean after the last trimester, in which it would be birth, wouldn’t it or, towards the end or the middle of the last trimester. Incredibly confusing.
    T R Verny MD

  5. Human are aware of their surrounding and interact with them at birth, at the very least. Babies talk, we just need to be more fluent and work on listening skills.
    Stimuli such as pinching a baby, invokes crying, translation that hurts. When a newborns turns to the sound of their mother’s voice they say, I recognize that sound. Newborns recognize their mother’s voice (evident by turning their face towards their mother, even though their essentially blind) upon delivery and turn in her direction, they also are content (enjoy) being swaddled, evident by not crying. I imagine they feel this way because it’s way colder out here than inside her womb, but I’m guessing. However, we are aware or conscience at birth, at the very least.
    Let me help. Grown-ups need to learn to listen a bit better. I can’t believe this is up for debate.
    The notion that we aren’t aware until 3 or 4 years old is absurd. I have vivid memories including thoughts that occured when I was 2 yrs old. Albeit tragic ones, clear memories, with images and thoughts. At 2 I knew it was wrong, evident by the memories. The doctors didn’t hear me, but my mother did. They didn’t even hear her. Typical…
    Oh and let me translate, infants won’t cooperate for experiments because they do not want to, what’s the benefit to them, hmmm. No promises, but slather your outfits in formula and try again, good luck. And your welcome.

  6. I don’t know. And, I do know that.When consciousness comes it is of the physical world. So to be aware of the physical world, which of course, is dualistic is what we call consciousness. Our great-grandson, Otto Is 10 months old and does mimic…But I do not see it as being a conscious act. And,he will be drawn to or repel things…also being a natural act and not necessarily conscious.
    Whereas Unconsciousness transcends the dualism consciousness needs to exist.

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