Infant Mind, Alien Mind – Part I, Listening In

My nephew, at four months

It sometimes feels that a day can’t go by without another study in the news that shows babies are smarter than they look: Behind that quizzical expression and love of mouthing everything in sight, babies recognize the fundamentals of math, find the rhythm in music, even seem to understand what other people think.

But while this research may create new respect for our littlest humans, it also creates the false illusion that infants are just tiny, in-progress versions of adults, thinking on the same lines we do just weaker or half-formed. In reality, infant minds are alien places. Let’s take a quick look at four ways that infants’ perception of the world is fundamentally different than our own.

1. Listening In

Babies hear more sounds than we do, and I’m not just talking about hearing the higher-pitched frequencies we lose as we age. Hold your hand an inch or so in front of your face, and say “pin” then “spin”. Feel how that puff of air is so much stronger for “pin”? Well, babies hear that difference as clearly as we hear the difference between “lake” and “rake”.  The sounds of language are called phonemes, and each language uses only a subset of the possible sounds of language – but babies have to be ready to learn whatever language the adults around them speak. Since the difference between a plain “p” and a “p” with a puff following it matters for other languages, such as Thai, babies have to hear that difference. So any time you speak to an infant, up to about 10 months of age, they hear sounds that you might not even know you’re making.

How babies hear differently isn’t just limited to language, either. Think of sound like the keys on a piano; each piano key represents a different frequency of sound. Adults tend to listen to tones, one or two keys at a time or at most a chord, but babies are listening to broadband,  or all the keys of the piano pressed at once. It helps them be aware of more things in their environment, but it also means that background noise is going to be even more difficult to tune out.

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