Infant Mind, Alien Mind – Part II, Looking Out

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 mathfind 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. We’ve already learned about “Listening In“. Now….

2. Looking Out

You might know that babies are born with blurry vision;  eyes don’t get much of a workout in the womb, and keeping views of the world soft and fuzzy might help babies make sense of what they see. But even as babies’ vision grows sharper and more detailed, they see the world differently than we do. New research shows that all babies may be synesthetes, whose sense mingle together. Although there’s no evidence yet that babies cross their senses, like tasting words or  hearing colors, babies do seem to have color-grapheme synesthesia, which leads people to report experiencing specific colors for each letter or  number they see.

Image: Dobkins and Wagner, UCSD

Image: Dobkins and Wagner, UCSD

Consider the picture to the right. If you saw one of those pictures on a computer screen, you would probably spend more time looking at one side or the other – maybe you like blue more than yellow, so you look at the blue side more. When the circles are replaced with triangles, you would probably keep that preference. A 10-month-old would look the same way, consistently preferring one color or one shape. Take a younger baby, though, only 2- or 3-months-old, and they will care about how the shape and color are matched up – they might prefer circles on blue but triangles on yellow. It’s not a straightforward preference for color or shape, but particular combinations of the two.

We already know that babies have many, many more connections between neurons – the building blocks of the brain – than adults do; it seems that some of those connections are between the brain regions that process shape and the regions that process color, leading babies to perceive them together instead of separately the way (most) adults do. Many of these connections are lost as we mature, but adult synesthetes may keep them…and be one step closer to knowing how a baby experiences the world.

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