“Infants have a conscious experience of the world at as early as 5 months of age, new research finds.” – Stephanie Pappas, Live Science
That is the opening sentence in a report about a new study that supposedly shows for the first time that babies have consciousness. (As if parents don’t know.)
New parents may raise an eyebrow at the idea that their baby might not be a conscious being, but scientists have, until now, not been able to clearly show that infants react with awareness rather than reflexively. “Even in adults, much of the brain’s processing of the world occurs without conscious awareness,” said Sid Kouider, a neuroscientist at the Laboratoire de Sciences Cognitives et Psycholinguistique in Paris and the Technical University of Denmark.
The researchers wanted to find out whether babies respond to their environment in an “automatic manner” or if they are doing it consciously, lamenting the fact that babies don’t talk so we can’t ask them about it.
How do they define consciousness then? They define it as brain activity. When the eyes see an object, there is a spike in brain activity. If the image is “consciously registered”, the scientists say there is a second spike in brain activity.
So they put the baby in front of a screen with these things on the head…
…and lo and behold, the baby indeed registers the image (one brain activity spike), and has a “conscious experience” of it (two brain activity spikes).
The delay in the spike was reduced for older babies.
But there was one important difference between the babies’ neural patterns and those seen in adults, Kouider said. In 5-month-olds, it took 1.3 seconds for the second flurry of brain activity to show up. In adults, the timing is closer to three-tenths of a second, or 0.3 seconds.
“It’s about four times slower, actually, in the younger infants,” Kouider said.
Older babies show snappier processing, though still not as quick as adults, the researchers found. In 12- to 15-month-olds, the second phase is stronger than in 5-month-olds and occurs around eight-tenths to nine-tenths of a second.
They say they are interested in this for the safety of the baby, to know whether or not anesthesia is needed when doing surgery on very young infants.
The thing is, they say that about studying fetal consciousness too.
However, policy decisions about limiting abortion before 24 weeks depend on these studies. If they admit that a fetus is conscious and can feel pain, people start thinking harder about abortion. But as long as the clump of tissue isn’t conscious, then it’s not really “there”, not really a human “being”, and since “it” can’t feel pain, well, abortion must be no big deal then, right? That’s what abortion advocates say.
The researchers say they plan to test babies as young as two months old for consciousness next.
Wonder what happens if they don’t pass the test?