Brain Facts

Brain Facts

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How Science is Unlocking the Inner Lives of Infants




A wealth of new research is leading pediatricians and child psychologists to rethink their long-held beliefs about the emotional and intellectual abilities of even very young babies, Newsweek reports in the current issue. In 1890, psychologist William James famously described an infant's view of the world as "one great blooming, buzzing confusion." It was a notion that held for nearly a century: infants were simpleminded creatures who merely mimicked those around them and grasped only the most basic emotions-happy, sad, angry. But now, as Newsweek reports in the August 15 cover story, "Your Baby's Brain" (on newsstands Monday, August 8), science is giving us a much different picture of what goes on inside babies' hearts and heads. Long before they form their first words or attempt the feat of sitting up, they are already mastering complex emotions -- jealousy, empathy, frustration -- that were once thought to be learned much later in toddlerhood.

Armed with the new information, pediatricians are starting to change the way they evaluate their youngest patients. In addition to tracking physical development, they are now focusing much more deeply on emotional advancement, report Washington Correspondent Pat Wingert and National Correspondent Martha Brant. The research shows how powerful emotional well-being is to a child's future health. A baby who fails to meet certain key "emotional milestones" may have trouble learning to speak, read, and, later, do well in school. By reading emotional responses, doctors have begun to discover ways to tell if a baby as young as 3 months is showing early signs of possible psychological disorders, including depression, anxiety, learning disabilities and perhaps autism. "Instead of just asking if they're crawling or sitting, we're asking more questions about how they share their world with their caregivers," says Dr. Chet Johnson, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' early-childhood committee.

The goal for all of this new research is that in the not-too-distant future, researchers hope doctors will routinely identify at-risk kids years earlier than they do now -- giving parents crucial extra time to turn things around, Newsweek reports. Some of the findings may also give an early indication of a baby's language development. Andrew Meltzoff, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, and colleague Rechele Brooks found that when infants near their first birthdays, they begin to infer what others are thinking by following the gazes of those around them. Meltzoff and Brooks studied the "gaze following" of thousands of babies. In their study, babies who weren't proficient at gaze-following by their first birthday had much less advanced-language skills at age 2. Meltzoff says this helps explain why language occurs more slowly in blind children, as well as children of depressed mothers, who tend not to interact as much with their babies.

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