Ever wonder what’s going on in that tiny little newborn’s brain? According to a new study, he or she could be daydreaming about the future.
Babies are born with an important collection of fully formed brain networks, including one linked to introspection, a new study shows.
The findings challenge previous ideas about early-stage brain development and activity.
Scientists at the MRC Clinical Sciences Center at Imperial College London used functional MRI to examine the brains of 70 babies born at between 29 and 43 weeks. The scans showed that full-term babies have adult-equivalent resting state networks. These are connected systems of neurons that are always active, even when a person is not focusing on a particular task or is asleep.
One fully formed resting state network identified in babies is called the default mode network, which is believed to be involved in introspection and daydreaming. Previous research had indicated this network was incomplete at birth and developed during early childhood.
"Some researchers have said that the default mode network is responsible for introspection -- retrieving autobiographical memories and envisioning the future, etc. The fact that we found it in newborn babies suggests that either being a fetus is a lot more fun than any of us can remember -- lying there happily introspecting and thinking about the future -- or that this theory is mistaken," lead author David Edwards said in a news release from Imperial College London.
"Our study shows that babies' brains are more fully formed than we thought. More generally, we sometimes expect to be able to explain the activity we can see on brain scans in terms of someone thinking or doing some task. However, most of the brain is probably engaged in activities of which we are completely unaware, and it is this complex background activity that we are detecting," Edwards said.
The findings were released online Nov. 1 in advance of publication in an upcoming print issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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."
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."