Are newborns aware of the world around them?

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Over the years, scientists have taken a growing interest in consciousness, this subjective experience of the mind and the world. If the study of this phenomenon in adults, people suffering from mental disorders, or even animals, has been explored, consciousness in infants remains largely unexplored territory. Claudia Passos-Ferreira is an assistant professor of bioethics at the New York University School of Global Public Health. This specialist emphasizes that recent research (such as this one in which she participated) suggest that the cognitive processes linked to consciousness could emerge earlier than previously estimated. She spoke on this subject in a interview given to the media Futurity. Here is what she concludes.

Measuring the unspeakable: a scientific challenge

Studying consciousness in infants presents unique difficulties. Their inability to respond to verbal commands and their long periods of sleep greatly complicate the understanding of their conscious state. As Passos-Ferreira explains: “ Neuroscientists often describe infant brains and behavior as very noisy – it is difficult to extract information from them, and what is happening there is not as clear as in adults “.

To get around these obstacles, scientists have shown imagination by using measurements of brain activity. In particular, they observed babies’ reactions to unexpected sounds, noting that their brains react in a similar way to that of adults when faced with unexpected sound sequences. This type of reaction suggests that infants consciously perceive these auditory stimuli.

The awakening of neural networks

The researchers also looked at the brain networks involved in consciousness in infants. Generally speaking, two main neural networks are associated with consciousness: the extrinsic consciousness network (saliency network) and the intrinsic consciousness network (default mode network).

The first is activated when our attention is focused on environmental stimuli, such as listening to a sound or observing an object. This network plays a determining role in the interaction and reaction to external elements. Conversely, the network of intrinsic consciousness is called upon when our mind wanders, imagines or is in a state of rest, without active engagement with the outside world. These two networks operate reciprocally: the activation of one tends to reduce the activity of the other, and vice versa.

According to Claudia Passos-Ferreira, recent studies have demonstrated that, even in infants, these networks are already present and fully operational. Using advanced brain imaging techniques, scientists have observed patterns of neuronal activity that indeed support this hypothesis. “ We observe an emerging pattern that supports the idea that, from early stages, these networks are well developed and that infant brains, although still immature, already function reciprocally between the two networks. » explains the researcher.

These results mean that, although the infant’s brain is still immature, it still exhibits activities comparable to those observed in adults. This discovery suggests that infants may have an early form of consciousness and that they already have sophisticated neural structures allowing them to process information.

Implications for infant care

The realization that infants could be endowed with consciousness fundamentally modifies our relationship with these beings in the making. Through a deep intuition, parents have always sought to ensure the well-being of their offspring, convinced that their infants felt pleasure and pain. As Passos-Ferreira notes: “ Parents do it instinctively, but a better understanding of infants’ consciousness could enrich our relationship with them “.

This awareness has much broader implications, going beyond the boundaries of the family circle to reach that of the field of pediatric care. As strange as it may seem, it has long been considered that infants, due to the immaturity of their brains, are incapable of feeling pain. It is only in recent decades that our understanding of pain in infants has radically changed.

Recent research shows that, although their brains are still developing, their experience of pain is almost analogous to that of adults, with 18 of the 20 brain areas reactive to pain in adults also activated in newborns. born. These new keys to understanding could play a very important role in improving pediatric care and, in general, enrich interactions between children and parents. By guaranteeing them access to a more attentive and responsive environment or by optimizing care and stimuli to promote their development, for example.

  • A new study suggests that infants are more aware of their surroundings than we imagined.
  • Their brain, although immature, has already operational neural networks, comparable to those of an adult.
  • A discovery that could change our approach to pediatric care.

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