Infant Mind, Alien Mind – Part III, Emotional Tastes

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.

After Part I: Listening In, and Part II: Looking Out, let’s move from perception to emotional experiences.

3) Emotional Tastes

There are some emotional expressions that seem to be universal: Your best friend, your distant relative, and members of the Fore tribe of New Guineaall use the same facial expression when they’re disgusted. (and we all have the same expression when we’re happy, angry, or afraid). The expressions appear early in infancy: Give a baby a taste of something unpleasant, like lime juice, and you’ll see a disgusted expression similar to an adult’s. But although the facial expression is the same, the experience of that taste in the brain is different.

The nephew tries something new.

Adults show very clear patterns of brain activity when they taste pleasant or unpleasant foods. When adults taste a spoonful of sugar (or officially, sucrose), a cap of electrodes taking an electroencephalogram (EEG) will measure activity of the left frontal region of the brain; switch the spoonful to citric acid, and the adult activity will be in the right frontal region. When newborns wear a much smaller cap of electrodes, however, the EEG measures different brain responses. For sugar, newborns show activity in the left frontal and the left parietal (upper middle of the brain) regions, so more regions of the brain are involved in processing a good taste. For citric acid, newborns show activity equally in both halves of the brain.  Whatever’s going on behind that disgusted face for a baby involves different brain activity than it does for an adult, and likely feels different as well.

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