Could there have been any doubt that babies can recognize their mother even before they are born, that they learn to speak based on the sound of the voice and express an unquenchable curiosity for faces? Four scientists spoke at the conference "What do babies think about?" organized at the Institut Pasteur for Brain Awareness Week 2023. Their presentations taught us more about the surprising abilities of the youngest among us.
We always marvel as we watch them grow, discover the world day by day and try to understand it. But how much do we know – or think we know – about what babies know? How do they think, and what do they think about? How do they perceive us? What would they like to tell us? We would give anything sometimes to know what they are feeling, what their expectations are, how they see the world, how they explore it and make sense of it.
Conference "What do babies think about?", organized at the Institut Pasteur, during Brain Awareness Week 2023. This meeting in front a general audience brought together recognized specialists in paediatrics, child psychiatry, developmental psychology neonatal and early childhood. The goal was to answer these multiple questions and offer a modern overview of our knowledge of the secret life of babies.
What we know about babies, their perceptions and their abilities
For nearly 30 years, there has been a growing body of research about babies that is changing our views of how they perceive the world and their ability to learn.
Almost as soon as they are born, babies can quantify small numbers of objects, they are aware of their body, they mimic us, discern our expectations, evaluate and predict our intentions, show empathy, acquire a sense of knowledge, are surprised at the unpredictability of things, feel uncertainty, and make use of this uncertainty to come up with multiple theories and review and consolidate their knowledge.
This cognitive precociousness is driven by the significant attentional resources they demonstrate, by their remarkable curiosity, their desire to learn and understand the world around them. Alongside the discovery of these fundamental, fascinating aspects that underpin the way in which newborn babies discover and build their world, at a clinical level we are developing more precise tools and diagnostic techniques for the early identification of any obstacles, delays to development and behavioral disorders that may emerge and the means of addressing them.
At the conference "What do babies think about?", organized on March 18, 2023 at the Institut Pasteur, four experts offered multiple answers to this question that often proved surprising.
Smells and faces: the first keys to socialization
Karine Durand is a researcher in developmental psychology at the University of Burgundy. She is particularly interested in how the cognitive development of infants and babies aged four months is based on their olfactory experiences. Humans are capable of smelling smells, especially their mother's scent, from the fetal stage onwards. As well as having a soothing effect, these smells play a role in socialization. Research has shown that babies are more likely to observe faces if they are exposed to the scent of their own mother at the same time. This also happens with the father's scent, but to a lesser extent, as the link between baby and mother is established at an earlier stage.
Recognizing the mother's voice and language
Laurianne Cabrera is a researcher in the Integrative Neuroscience & Cognition Center at Université Paris Cité. She specializes in neuropsychology related to sound processing and speech perception mechanisms. Since the 1970s, new tools and methods have revealed that the brain area responsible for sound processing is immature in babies, but that they remain able to recognize their mother's voice. Moreover, nearly half the world's population learns two languages at birth, and babies are capable of differentiating between two languages and assimilating them separately.
The musical dimension of language learning
Alex de Carvalho is an associate professor of developmental psychology at Université Paris Cité. Contrary to what we might think, babies do not learn the meaning of words simply because adults say them while pointing to the objects they refer to. We know this because children who are born blind do not have a language delay. The key is in the intonation used to speak sentences. Depending on the tone given to a word, babies can determine its role in the sentence and therefore its part of speech. As they continue to learn in this way, babies become capable of making the link the other way round and are able to identify whether a sentence is grammatically correct. So it appears that the early stages in the development of oral communication are based on the musicality of speech that becomes spontaneous in adulthood.
Neurodevelopmental disorders: the role of synapses
Thomas Bourgeron is a geneticist in the Institut Pasteur's Department of Neuroscience and a specialist in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD is characterized by restricted interests and difficulties in social interaction and verbal and non-verbal communication, to varying degrees depending on the individual. At a neurobiological level, there is relatively little variation in the number of neurons between individuals with and without ASD. But the number and density of the connections between neurons (known as synapses) is much lower in people with ASD. It is thought that ASD affects 1 to 2% of the population, and one in three of these individuals have intellectual disability.
Read the press release (in French): "Autism: the Institut Pasteur alongside clinicians and stakeholders"
Unraveling the brain's mysteries