Baby Brains

Friend of mine posted this link to 11 cool facts about baby brains on facebook.  Given that I’m intensely interacting with a particular baby brain every day, I found it of particular interest.  Some of these I already knew, some I didn’t, and some in the first category were well worth being reminded of.  Anyway, fact #1: very true:

All babies are born too early

If it weren’t for the size limitations of a woman’s pelvis, babies would stay developing in the womb for considerably longer, comparative biologists have suggested.

“We have to keep our pelvises relatively narrow to keep upright,” said Lise Eliot, neuroscientist and author of What’s Going on in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life (Bantam, 2000). To fit through mom’s, er, escape hatch, the newborn brain is one-quarter the size of an adult’s.

Accordingly, some pediatricians label a baby’s first three months of life as the “fourth trimester” of pregnancy to emphasize how needy, and yet devoid of social skills, babies are at this stage. The first social smile, for example, doesn’t usually appear until the infant is 10-14 weeks old and the first phase of attachment, scientists suggest, begins around five months old.

This understanding is the basis for one of the two books that truly changed my life.  The Happiest Baby on the Block.  All about how to best soothe this unhappy creature.  Sarah just turned 3 months, and it really is pretty amazing how much more interesting and engaging (and calm) she is now compared to just a few weeks ago.  Found the following new to me and pretty interesting:

Lantern (vs. flashlight) awareness

Baby brains have many, many more neuronal connections than the brains of adults. They also have less inhibitory neurotransmitters. As a result, researchers such as Gopnik have suggested, the baby’s perception of reality is more diffuse (read: less focused) than adults. They are vaguely aware of pretty much everything – a sensible strategy considering they don’t yet know what’s important. Gopnik likens baby perception to a lantern, scattering light across the room, where adult perception is more like a flashlight, consciously focused on specific things but ignoring background details.

As babies mature, their brains go through a “pruning” process, where their neuronal networks are strategically shaped and fine-tuned by their experience. This helps them make order out of their worlds, but also makes it harder to innovate and come up with such breakthroughs as spinach puree face paint.

Creative people, Gopnik and others have argued, have retained some ability to think like an infant.

The whole thing is pretty cool.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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