Is it a bird? Or a plane? No, it’s a baby. When we think of babies, it’s easy to focus on all the things they can’t do – walk, talk, look after themselves, or think like we do. But there are also plenty of things babies can do that we can’t. And few of us are aware of the ‘superpowers’ we’ve lost.
Seeing is believing
Are you good at remembering faces? Most of us do a decent job of recognising different human faces. Whether we’re six months, six years, or sixty years old, we tend to be equally good at telling human faces apart. But we’re lousy when it comes to other animals’ faces. Even researchers who work with primates tend to tell monkeys and apes apart by personality, habits or fur markings rather than their faces. Not so babies. Six-month-old babies are pros at telling individual monkeys apart from their faces (in this case, Barbary macaques). Even when the monkey faces were upside down. But by nine months of age, unless they’ve kept practicing their skills, babies have lost the ability to pick which monkey is which.
Babies also see everything around them slightly differently to adults. Next time you’re on a train platform, watch a train as it approaches. The train changes from being a distant dot, to something way taller than us. At the same time, it changes shape and probably colour, depending on the light. But our brains create a constant image of a train for us: despite all the changes, we don’t for a second think the train is actually growing in size or changing colour as it approaches. We’ve got something called ‘perceptual constancy’ to thank for this trick. But it’s a trick little babies can’t yet do. Their loss? Yes, and no. Without perceptual constancy, babies under five months are at risk of seeing a world of constantly-changing chaos, but they also have an amazing ability to pick slight differences in pictures that we simply can’t see.
Baby talk might sound like nothing more than babble but don’t be fooled. Babies are whizzes when it comes to language. Even though they can’t talk, babies know the meanings of common words, like apple, mouth and ear, at only six months. Even more impressive, many studies have shown how good young babies are at learning languages.
At birth, babies can tell the difference between their native tongue and a different language. In fact, they can hear differences between the sounds of all languages. Four-month olds can tell languages apart just by watching silent videos of adults talking: the mouth movements are enough to tell when the language being spoken changes. By eight months, only bilingual babies can do this. At six months, babies raised in English-speaking homes can pick subtle differences between sounds that occur only in Hindi. But in our first year, we all lose the ability to hear these differences – soon we can only distinguish between the sounds of the language, or languages, we hear spoken by the people around us.
Babies… can discriminate all the sounds of all languages, no matter what country we’re testing and what language we’re using, and that’s remarkable because you and I can’t do that. – Professor Patricia Kuhl
Young babies don’t just pass with flying colours when it comes to spoken languages. Four-month olds can pick small differences in hand shapes in sign language, but 14-month olds can’t. And why stop at humans? Six-month olds can match the barking sound of a friendly or aggressive dog to the right dog in a photo, showing either a playful or aggressive posture. This is true even if the baby has never met a dog.
If you’ve ever had much to do with babies, it’s easy to assume they are the most selfish of all people. Solely focused on their needs and wants: ‘I’m hungry, I’m tired, I need a fresh nappy, I don’t know why but I just feel miserable. Help!’
In fact, research shows babies and toddlers are incredibly tuned in to the people around them. Six-month olds take in lots of information about the social situations they watch, deciding who is friendly on the basis of watching either the helping or obstructive behaviour of other people. In one study, 18-month olds were found to be ‘emotionally eavesdropping’ – listening to and watching emotional reactions between adults and then changing their own behaviour in light of what they found out.
And baby brains aren’t just capable of social feats. Babies also have a basic number sense and understand that one plus one should equal two. What’s more, newborn babies have in inbuilt sense of rhythm. The brains of two-day old babies respond differently when the drum rhythm they are listening to isn’t what they were expecting to hear.
We shouldn’t be surprised baby brains are capable of so much: in the first few years of life, our brains form 700 new nerve connections every second. By the time we are three, we’ve got about a thousand trillion connections – more than double the number an adult has.
So next time you’re tempted to dismiss a baby as an eating, sleeping and pooing machine, it may be time to think again.