I'm astonished by some of the latest theories concerning a baby's mind. The Boston Globe has a very long and interesting article about it. Here's an excerpt.
... scientists have begun to dramatically revise their concept of a baby's mind. By using new research techniques and tools, they've revealed that the baby brain is abuzz with activity, capable of learning astonishing amounts of information in a relatively short time. Unlike the adult mind, which restricts itself to a narrow slice of reality, babies can take in a much wider spectrum of sensation - they are, in an important sense, more aware of the world than we are.
This hyperawareness comes with several benefits. For starters, it allows young children to figure out the world at an incredibly fast pace. Although babies are born utterly helpless, within a few years they've mastered everything from language - a toddler learns 10 new words every day - to complex motor skills such as walking. According to this new view of the baby brain, many of the mental traits that used to seem like developmental shortcomings, such as infants' inability to focus their attention, are actually crucial assets in the learning process.
In fact, in some situations it might actually be better for adults to regress into a newborn state of mind. While maturity has its perks, it can also inhibit creativity and lead people to fixate on the wrong facts. When we need to sort through a lot of seemingly irrelevant information or create something completely new, thinking like a baby is our best option.
"We've had this very misleading view of babies," says Alison Gopnik, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of the forthcoming book, "The Philosophical Baby." "The baby brain is perfectly designed for what it needs to do, which is learn about the world. There are times when having a fully developed brain can almost seem like an impediment."
One of the most surprising implications of this new research concerns baby consciousness, or what babies actually experience as they interact with the outside world. While scientists and doctors have traditionally assumed that babies are much less conscious than adults - this is why, until the 1970s, many infants underwent surgery without anesthesia - that view is being overturned. Gopnik argues that, in many respects, babies are more conscious than adults. She compares the experience of being a baby with that of watching a riveting movie, or being a tourist in a foreign city, where even the most mundane activities seem new and exciting. "For a baby, every day is like going to Paris for the first time," Gopnik says. "Just go for a walk with a 2-year-old. You'll quickly realize that they're seeing things you don't even notice."
There's something slightly paradoxical about trying to study the inner life of babies. For starters, you can't ask them questions. Young children can't describe their sensations or justify their emotions; they can't articulate the pleasure of a pacifier or explain the comfort of a stuffed animal. And, of course, none of us have any memories of infancy. For a scientist, the baby mind can seem like an impenetrable black box.
In recent years, however, scientists have developed new methods for entering the head of a baby. They've looked at the density of brain tissue, analyzed the development of neural connections, and tracked the eye movements of infants. By comparing the anatomy of the baby brain with the adult brain, scientists can make inferences about infant experience.
These new research techniques have uncovered several surprising findings. It turns out that the baby brain actually contains more brain cells, or neurons, than the adult brain: The instant we open our eyes, our neurons start the "pruning process," which involves the elimination of seemingly unnecessary neural connections. Furthermore, the distinct parts of the baby cortex - the center of sensation and higher thought - are better connected than the adult cortex, with more links between disparate regions. These anatomical differences aren't simply a sign of immaturity: They're an important tool that provides babies with the ability to assimilate vast amounts of information with ease.
While the pruning process makes the brain more efficient, it can also narrow our thoughts and make learning more difficult, as we become less able to adjust to new circumstances and absorb new ideas. In a sense, there's a direct trade-off between the mind's flexibility and its proficiency. As Gopnik notes, this helps explain why a young child can learn three languages at once but nevertheless struggle to tie his shoelaces.
But the newborn brain isn't just denser and more malleable: it's also constructed differently, with far fewer inhibitory neurotransmitters, which are the chemicals that prevent neurons from firing. This suggests that the infant mind is actually more crowded with fleeting thoughts and stray sensations than the adult mind. While adults automatically block out irrelevant information, such as the hum of an air conditioner or the conversation of nearby strangers, babies take everything in: their reality arrives without a filter. As a result, it typically takes significantly higher concentrations of anesthesia to render babies unconscious, since there's more cellular activity to silence.
The hyperabundance of thoughts in the baby brain also reflects profound differences in the ways adults and babies pay attention to the world. If attention works like a narrow spotlight in adults - a focused beam illuminating particular parts of reality - then in young kids it works more like a lantern, casting a diffuse radiance on their surroundings.
"We sometimes say that adults are better at paying attention than children," writes Gopnik. "But really we mean just the opposite. Adults are better at not paying attention. They're better at screening out everything else and restricting their consciousness to a single focus."
There's much more at the link. Highly recommended reading.