Monday, June 25, 2007

Are Babies More Conscious than Adults?

Philosophers and doctors used to dispute (sometimes still do dispute) whether babies are conscious or merely (as Alison Gopnik puts it in her criticism of the view) "crying carrots". This view went so far that doctors often used to think it unnecessary to give anaesthesia to infants. Infants are still, I think, not as conscientiously anaesthetized as adults.

Gopnik argues that babies are not only conscious, they are more conscious than adults. Her argument for this view begins with the idea that people in general -- adults, that is -- have more conscious experience of what they attend to than of what they disregard. We have either no experience, or limited experience, of the hum of the refrigerator in the background or the feeling of the shoes on our feet, until we stop to think about it. In contrast, when we expertly and automatically do something routine (such as driving to work on the usual route) we are often barely conscious at all, it seems. (I think the issue is complex, though.)

When we attend to something, the brain regions involved exhibit more cholinergic activity, become more plastic and open to new information. We learn more and lay down new memories. What we don't attend to, we often hardly learn about at all.

Baby brains, Gopnik says, exhibit a much broader plasticity than adults' and have a general neurochemistry similar to the neurochemistry involved in adult attention. Babies learn more quickly than we do, and about more things, and pick up more incidental knowledge outside a narrow band of attention. Gopnik suggests that we think of attention, in adults, as something like a mechanism that turns part of our mature and slow-changing brains, for a brief period, flexible, quick learning, and plastic -- baby-like -- while suppressing change in the rest of the brain.

So what is it like to be a baby? According to Gopnik, it's something like attending to everything at once: There's much less of the reflexive and ignored, the non-conscious, the automatic and expert. She suggests that the closest approximation adults typically get to baby-like experience is when they are in completely novel environments, such as very different cultures, where everything is new. In four days in New Guinea we might have more consciousness and lay down more memories than in four months at home. Also, she suggests, it may be something like certain forms of meditation -- those that involve dissolving one's attentional focus and becoming aware of everything at once. In such states, consciousness becomes not like a spotlight focused on one or a few objects of attention, with all else dark, but more like a lantern, shining its light on many things at once.

Now isn't that a nifty little thought?

19 comments:

Tanasije Gjorgoski said...

Hi Eric,

I'm inclined to agree with Gopnik to some extent, namely that infants are conscious.

Also one can point also to holistic to analytic shift in cognitive development as a reason to believe that if babies have awareness, it is some kind of gestalt awareness.

I'm skeptical though about the claim that it might be awareness of "everything at once". It seems to me that probably even for young babies there is some salience-factor of the things in their surrounding, and that their attention does "pick-out" parts of their environment, and is not total-holistic awareness.

Tanasije Gjorgoski said...

Oh, sorry, one more comment...

I'm also skeptical if there is some consciousness qua consciousness that can be quantified and graded (more/less conscious).

It seems to me that if we want to compare, we need to compare "consciousness of", namely what things is person A conscious of, what are babies conscious of, and so on...

In such sense, one can say that even babies are conscious of something (e.g. some parts of their environment as wholes), they are lacking consciousness of things which adult attention can pick-out. (Now, this might sound weird, but I would be inclined also to add to the difference the awareness of complex social phenomena, artifacts, natural kinds, and so on... I think that is all part of "consciousness of" which adults have and children lack.)

Another separate thing to be compared is I think the ammount of how much something of which the individual is aware of in fact *affects* emotionally the individual. It might be that even both babies and grown-ups are similarly conscious of pain, that babies are emotionally affected much more (e.g. might feel more fear).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, Tanasije! I'm inclined to agree with you that babies have attentional focus -- and I'm not sure Gopnik would disagree, though her lantern metaphor might be a little misleading in this respect. For example, a face will apparently catch a baby's attention (in the sense that her gaze will follow it, other activities will be disrupted, and in other ways she will seem to devote particular cognitive energy to it). I suppose Gopnik's idea is that that attention, still, is more broadly spread, and the unattended things less completely ignored, than in adults.

I'm also inclined to agree with you that what babies are conscious of is different from what adults are conscious of, in some sense of "conscious of": Obviously babies can't see money as money, for example. In her 1997 book with Meltzoff, Gopnik notes that babies seem unsurprised when an object changes form completely in mid-trajectory, but when it changes trajectory even without changing form, that seems to confuse them. Elizabeth Spelke has found that babies don't seem surprised by violations of gravity but they are surprised by violations of solidity. So the way babies parse objects and their movement is rather different from how adults do it!

dan haybron said...

Well, that would explain why they cry so much! Interesting stuff, and pretty plausible, but I wonder if it means babies are "more conscious" phenomenally, as opposed to more aware of their environment. Can they experience more pain or suffering than adults? I'd guess less, actually, though maybe that's just wishful thinking from a parent! I'd guess there's an important sense in which their experience is not as rich or complex as an adult's (angst? anguish? ennui?), even if it takes in more environmental stimuli. Eg, if your legs get chopped off at six flags, you'll probably suffer much more than a baby would, since the experience would be, um, a lot more meaningful to you.

Maybe baby consciousness is broader but more phenomenally impoverished than adult consciousness, so they're in one sense more, and in another less, conscious than adults are. (Maybe it's not quite right to say they have more awareness: rather, they are less richly or fully aware, but of more things.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Neat comment, Dan! That's a pretty attractive view. Presumably babies won't have inner speech, either!

But if Gopnik is right that consciousness is connected to plasticity and memory, the overpie pie will still favor the babies....

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Marginal Revolution picked up this post here. Some interesting comments. I like the comparison to the Doors of Perception....

Anonymous said...

This certainly seems to characterize my own experience of growing into adulthood, and is, btw, consistent with what poets for millennia have nostalgically been saying about children's minds. Indeed, I see myself devoting great energy as an adult to maintaining whatever degree of this form of consciousness I can-- through travel, play, artistic creativity, meditation, a general contrarianism, a general aversion to blindly accepting the "obvious" as obvious. The difference, as an adult, is that this now takes effort, and watchfulness, whereas it was effortless before. Nor is it ever as pure as it used to be. And I don't think it's so much being aware of everything at once as being primed and sensitive to, and taking seriously, any and every stimulus, something like what Ellen Langer calls
"mindfulness" in her work.

Though there is something to the "attending to everything at once" idea too, I think. After sustained meditation one thing I've experienced is a kind of global heightening of awareness. I don't lose attentional focus, but I gain richness and sensitivity on sub-attentional levels of awareness. You're still taking in discrete things, but environment in which you do so seems more buzzing, energetic, full, intimate.

commoner51 said...

It's actually a type of goal for buddhists. To come into this child-like state of mind before all of the conditioning set in and created a permanent false sense of self.

Anonymous said...

Look up Kasper Hauser. He was raised in a box with no light or contact with other humans until the age of 16. He had an infants mind when he was thrown out into the world. Fascinating.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

The story of Kaspar Hauser is fascinating, but I must confess that I mistrust reports and memories of childhood. The connection to meditation is interesting, and Gopnik develops it in some detail. I myself have never had the patience for meditation, and my few feeble efforts have never felt very rewarding, but I do believe it's a phenomenon that deserves more serious scientific study than it typically gets!

jim said...

Eric:

You might try a more "informal" type of meditation. This can be done walking, standing, sitting, driving etc. Just gaze straight ahead without visually focusing on anything. Attention then seem to shift to internal mental events, a thought, image, feeling etc. Simply watch these mental events emerge, run through your stream of consciousness and then disappear.

This is a great technique for gaining greater insight into internal speech. Just let your mind record your observations without endorsing, rejecting or following any of the internal messages.

Such "meditation" might also be a pathway back to a childs mind as experienced and described so beautifully by anonymous.

There is also increasing research being done on this type of practice. See the article by Lieberman in the current issue of Psychological Science.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Jim, and for the tip on the Lieberman. I'm printing it out now!

What you call informal meditation is something I do often for short bursts -- reading and thinking about the stream of consciousness, it's almost impossible not to! However, I've never, or only very rarely, done it for periods of more than a couple of minutes at a time. I wonder whether I'd get anything different, or just more of the same...? Maybe I'll give it a try on my walk tomorrow morning!

Anonymous said...

You say that babies are more vulnerable to pain because they have a higher level of consciousness. Assuming that they do indeed have a higher level of consciousness, another factor in pain experience is memory. Babies, I believe I remember hearing (don't have time to research to the web to find sources -- sorry), don't have the kind of conscious memory that adults have. They may have a great deal of consciousness in the moment, but don't remember the moments past (although they can learn from the past in an automatic fashion). Now, the interesting thing about this is that there is an anesthetic drug for pain that does exactly that --prevents the memory of the previous moment. So, the baby might feel pain in the moment, but the conscious feeling of it isn't there because the short term memory isn't formed. It takes a little while for pain to reach that conscious mind -- think about when you cut yourself -- it takes a little while for your brain to say "hey, that hurts!" although your reflexes (withdrawl of hand, say) happen much quicker.

Raoul said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Genius said...

I think young babies don't actually even play those games - ie that their early behavior is not at all related to trying to get the parent to do anything (ie you don't cry to get fed you cry only because your tummy feels funny) and the most important reason for crying ever, which is "I was crying one second ago".

It seems to work in my case - the strategy being that if you stop them crying as fast as possible you actually get a better behaved child than if you let them cry. Of course as they get older they do start to play games so strategy must change a bit.

My child also at times does things that are about as hard to connect to her own welfare as most altruism since she was capable of doing anything at all.

anyway just my observations...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I deleted a comment that was in the gray area between on-topic and an off-topic remark with a link to a commercial website. If the author wishes to resubmit the comment without the link, he is welcome to do so!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

And I agree with Genius!

J-Mo said...

I want to believe that babies have consciousness, because the moral implications of finding out that they're not would be personally shocking.

That aside (as it should be)...

We don't really know the purpose of consciousness, but if it is to provide executive functions -- things like choosing, deliberately contemplating, etc., then it seems like infants might not need these. They don't have control over their environment. It is certainly possible that "attention" could be paid without any consciousness of the attention. Something salient just grabs their brains. Consciousness could gradually appear later, when they need to make decisions, etc.

It would sure explain the fact that nobody remembers their babyhood.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Nice thought, J-Mo. Since I tend to default to a "rich" or "abundant" view of consciousness, on which we simultaneously have conscious experience of lots of stuff to which we are not attending, I'm not attracted to those sorts of functional roles as necessary for consciousness. Officially, though, I'm neutral on the point and I think the whole thing is a horrible mess (as I argue in Chapter 6 of my forthcoming book Perplexities of Consciousness).