Are babies conscious?

Infant consciousness seems like a difficult question.  It’s one people often react to with outrage that it’s even being asked.  Of course they’re conscious, is the sentiment.  Aren’t they human, and don’t we see them crying, showing facial expressions, and exhibiting other behaviors?  Others conclude that there’s no real way to know since they can’t talk and reveal their experience to us.

For several decades in the 20th century, the medical profession largely assumed that babies were not in fact conscious.  As a result, they were often subjected to medical procedures, including surgery, without anesthesia.  (I was initially skeptical about the surgery part, since operating on a screaming convulsing infant, even if only driven by nociception and reflex, doesn’t seem productive, but apparently they were given muscle blockers to paralyze them.)

This started to change in the 1970s.  But Frank Amthor pointed out in Neuroscience for Dummies that this didn’t appear to be due to any scientific discoveries.  Claudia Passos-Ferreira, in an interview with Richard Brown, noted that part of this reflected a growing concern about the effects of nociception on the infant’s long term health.

The argument for babies not being conscious is that their behavior is dominated by reflexes.  You don’t need phenomenal awareness to cry, suck, startle, or grip.  This fits with the fact that the cerebral cortex in a baby remains immature, with exuberant synaptogenesis and myelination still in progress.  And we all have infantile amnesia; we don’t remember the first couple of years of life.

But immaturity doesn’t mean non-functional.  The cortex of an infant is less differentiated than an older human’s, and performs more slowly, but that doesn’t mean it’s not operating and influencing behavior.  Infants from the beginning show a fascination with human faces, processing known to happen in particular locations in the cortex, such as the fusiform face area.

Stanislas Deheane, in Consciousness and the Brain, expresses disdain for philosophical declarations on this.  He describes experiments that show infants having the same neural markers for consciousness as adults, although they manifest slower.  For example, the P300 wave takes longer to evolve, 900 milliseconds in a five month old rather than the 300 milliseconds for adults.

Although Passos-Ferreira points out that by five months, we already have enough evidence for flexible and learned behavior to make the case that consciousness is present.  It’s the earlier periods, notably the first month or two of life, where things are more difficult.

As usual, my take on this is that it depends on which definition of “consciousness” we’re working with.  I think asking whether a baby is conscious, as though consciousness is something either present or absent, is meaningless.  It’s clear babies lack some mental capabilities older humans have, but it’s also clear they still have some subset of them.

Pulling out my usual hierarchy of consciousness definitions:

  1. Matter: a system that is part of the environment, is affected by it, and affects it.  Panpsychism.
  2. Reflexes and fixed action patterns: automatic reactions to stimuli.  If we stipulate that these must be biologically adaptive, then this layer is equivalent to universal biopsychism.
  3. Perception: models of the environment built from distance senses, increasing the scope of what the reflexes are reacting to.
  4. Volition: selection of which reflexes to allow or inhibit based on learned predictions.
  5. Deliberative imagination: sensory-action scenarios, episodic memory, to enhance 4.
  6. Introspection: deep recursive metacognition enabling symbolic thought.

It seems clear a newborn has at least 1-3.  Level 4, if not present at birth, seems to come rapidly in the first few months of life, with 5 and 6 perhaps taking longer.

So the question isn’t whether babies are conscious, but how conscious they are at various developmental stages.  Which seems like a much less emotional question to ponder.

Unless of course I’m missing something?

39 thoughts on “Are babies conscious?

  1. As usual you seem spot on. Too many questions are presented as if they were dichotomies. There is, apparently, and old saying of “when presented with a choice of two options, always take the third.” This implies to me, at least, some cultural wisdom regarding a wariness around dichotomies.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I pretty much agree with Steve, so I’d like to take this opportunity to poke at your levels.

    What distinguishes 1 from 2, assuming we leave out the “bio” requirement?

    For level 3, what is a model? How do you know if something has one?


    Liked by 2 people

    1. On the difference between 1 and 2, I’m pretty sure the answer you’re looking for, and I agree, is teleonomy, an agenda, although not one the system itself formulated.

      I think of a model as a representation, a prediction framework. We know it’s present when there is object discrimination. Even very young babies seem to show this by their preference for looking at faces, as well as bright colors and simple shapes.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Okay, since I have to find *something* to pick on, … I’m gonna suggest you be more careful with the term “the system” when I’m guessing you are referring to what I would call the mechanism, for the simple reason that you need some term to refer to the what the “agenda” actually does come from.

        As for models, my gut reaction is to equate them with pattern recognition mechanisms (yes, unitrackers), but I’m trying to suss out whether something extra is included. You mention a predictive framework, which I equate with Anil Seth & co.’s predictive processing framework (have you seen his recent paper “Predictive processing as a systematic basis for identifying the neural correlates of consciousness”? sorry, I lost the link). I think the special sauce might be feedback to the inputs of the mechanism. Strictly speaking, though, that feedback is just part of the pattern being recognized. So I guess the question becomes, for it to be a “model”, does there have to be a hierarchy of recognitions, which would include feedback, or is just a single level pattern recognition sufficient?


        Liked by 1 person

        1. Pick away. It’s why I have these discussions!

          The word “system” was just a generic word to refer to a mind, computer system, or other entity that exhibits behavior. Just to be clear, I don’t think the agenda comes from the system at level 2. It comes evolution or its designers. Only when we get to level 4 do we start to see the system itself start to formulate its own agenda, but only really in full measure with level 5.

          I think a model is actually a vast hierarchy of unitrackers. Actually multiple interacting hierarchies. Although one perhaps culiminating in a unitracker for the concept being modeled.

          I did see Seth’s paper, and did an initial scan through of it. While I’m generally on board with predictive processing, I thought they get a little greedy with it. That said, I didn’t write about it because I had a hard time focusing when going through it, and I’d need to make another pass to be coherent on it.

          I definitely think the hierarchy and feedback are crucial. Consciously, it feels like recognizing something is a single unitary event, but that single event is the culmination of a vast hierarchical mechanisms.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. One way to look at a model is as a prediction or association network. So the minimal form might be one prediction leading to another, although calling just that a “model” seems strained. Like many things, there isn’t really a sharp line we can draw between a few scattered associations and a full on model.

            Liked by 1 person

  3. What happened to affective states in your hierarchy? I thought they partially(?) defined one of the levels.

    Actually Steve, when presented with two options, I usually take both. Plus a third. Just greedy I guess.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Affects are still there. There are people who argue they exist at earlier levels, but they become functionally crucial at level 4 and higher.

      I know many people will draw the consciousness line at that point, and I’m sympathetic with that boundary. Unfortunately, knowing whether newborns have affects is very difficult since their behavior can be interpreted both reflexively or affectively.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Unless of course I’m missing something?

    I generally like this ending.
    If they are not conscious, the question I would ask would be when is consciousness introduced in their lives? Is it by an external force or i am missing something?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Mak. That’s my usual ending, indicating I’m open to being shown where I’m wrong. (Or at least try to be. 🙂 )

      I do think consciousness comes in stages. They have some right from the beginning, and acquire others later.

      But the external force question is interesting. If a newborn were kept in utter isolation after birth, would they develop consciousness? I suspect they would, but such isolation seems like it would have profound consequences for their mentality.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Definitely. And babies crave social interaction. Complete frustration of those cravings might have all kinds of detrimental effects.

          But the isolation I was thinking of was sensory, as in perhaps a sensory deprivation tank. They wouldn’t even be able to learn about the external world. They might still be conscious, but it seems like it would be a desolate and impoverished consciousness.


  5. I did the sensory deprivation tank thing back in the eighties. It definitely was weird— surreal beyond mention.Kind of dug it though. There came a point where I fancied myself a bat, Thomas Nagal notwithstanding.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. There was no sense of time at all. It was just a sense of enduring presence or maybe absence. Descriptive powers fail me here The “battiness” of the experience is only in retrospect. It’s an interesting question though whether conceptual competence can reliably track experiential competence.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Aborisation doesn’t stop until 36 months after birth, after which it can begin to actually store memories, so at the very least we can say that until then the infant is experiencing everything as constant novelty.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I remember reading something a while back that, based on brain scans, the experience of babies may be like the one adults have on an LSD high, tripping out to everything.

      But I think the onset of memory is a gradual thing. Even very young babies have semantic memory, that is, the ability to remember particular things. This makes sense when you remember that they learn skills, people’s faces and voices, and language.

      What may take a while to develop is episodic memory. Their ability to both remember prior sequences of events and imagine future ones, is probably what takes a few years to develop.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. “As usual, my take on this is that it depends on which definition of ‘consciousness’ we’re working with.”

    Agreed. In the general sense (of being human), of course they’re conscious, although they have a very new one. (I haven’t dealt with babies much, but every parent I know speaks of how babies are taking it all in and begin to recognize their parents quite early. They are, at that point, training their neural net.)

    As you say, the question is how that consciousness evolves over time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interestingly, one of my cousins told me, when taking care of his first son, that the first few weeks felt like they had acquired a high maintenance poop machine. It took a while before he started to feel like there was a person there. (I think mothers feel it much earlier for various reasons.)

      His remarks resonated with those from Chad Orzel, when he was blogging his impressions in the first few weeks of his daughter’s life.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Biology could be seen as a way to accelerate the production of entropy. (Not that it makes that big a difference in the overall scheme of things. Stars produce far more entropy than anything we produce. Although that could conceivably change in the distant future.)


  8. Since I think spiders are conscious, I can’t hardly believe human babies are not.

    But humans are an especially unique case. Humans are likely the most neurologically immature at birth of any species (at least any complex species). A colt or baby elephant normally is walking around shortly after birth. This takes months for a human. Brain growth and connections are getting made for years after humans are born.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good point, and one I probably should have made in the post. Interestingly, there is some continuity in helplessness with other primate species. Most have very limited movement abilities when first born, although most baby monkeys have a strong enough grip to hang from their mother. (Which explains the gripping reflex in human babies.) But great ape newborns (including humans) weigh too much, and so require complete support at birth. It does take humans the longest to get past that stage.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I had some back and forth with the author of prefrontal synthesis article I’ve discussed previously. He argued based on some other researchers that the delayed maturation was mainly in the prefrontal area but I think it may be more than that. Although the prefrontal area seem to have particularly delayed maturation over other apes – up to 5 years vs 1 year in other primates if I remember correctly.

    “Indeed, by one estimation a human fetus would have to undergo a gestation period of 18 to 21 months instead of the usual nine to be born at a neurological and cognitive development stage comparable to that of a chimpanzee newborn.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. One of the things that has gradually become noticeable to me, is that a specialist in a particular area or aspect of the brain, has a tendency to overemphasize the role of that area or aspect.

      That 18-21 month estimate seems high to me, given this info in the chimpanzee article:

      Newborn chimps are helpless; their grasping reflex is not strong enough to support them for more than a few seconds. For their first 30 days, infants cling to their mother’s bellies. Infants are unable to support their own weight for their first two months and need their mothers’ support.[86]

      When they reach five to six months, infants ride on their mothers’ backs. They remain in continual contact for the rest of their first year. When they reach two years of age, they are able to move and sit independently, and start moving beyond the arms reach of their mothers.

      I used to buy the birth canal theory, but like the article you linked discusses, it appears to be more complicated.


      1. Yeah. Everybody including me used to think it was birth canal related but the modern view is it is related to metabolic demands on mother.

        BTW Geza Roheim, a Hungarian psychoanalyst and anthropologist, made a big deal of human helplessness at birth. He thought it was directly related to human neurosis, but that is also accounted for the capacity for human culture. If we put aside the neurosis part of the argument, the helplessness and delayed maturation, especially of the PFC, probably does have a lot to do with human cultural capacity. It also means, I think, that ability relies to a lesser degree on on genetic traits but extensively on epigenetic neurological development that occurs after birth and under cultural influence. That would also mean that some of much of human specific cognitive abilities may be not so much hard-wired into the brain but built over several thousand years of cultural feedback passed from generation to generation.

        I may be speculating a bit there.


        1. I think it’s a plausible view, but does seem speculative.

          I’m always cautious when evaluating ideas about the nature / nurture boundary, because it’s very easy to let our ideological biases influence us. It seems like we have a lot more hardwiring than progressives ever want to admit, but we’re a lot more malleable than traditionalists ever want to admit.


          1. I’m starting a new club. We’re calling ourselves the progritionalists. At our club meetings we’ll discuss all about how firm-but-yielding-wired we are while eating club sandwiches. (See Mitch Hedberg’s rules on how to make and eat a club sandwich.)


            Liked by 1 person

          2. Sorry, poor attempt at humor (or maybe just too out of nowhere based on my lack of joking in previous comments). My humor often consists of puns and wordplay. I was just mixing the two extremes you mentioned because with all the polarization going on in the world, I like the middle ground a lot. So I mixed progressive and traditionalist into one word, and used “firm but yielding” as the middle ground between hard and malleable.

            As for Mitch Hedberg, he was a quirky comedian I like. He did a short joke on club sandwiches that I was reminded of when I mentioned starting a new club. If you search on YouTube for “Mitch Hedberg Club Sandwich” you’ll find the bit. Not sure if it’s your type of humor though. Maybe I’ll preface my attempts at humor in the future so that it’s less confusing. 🙂


          3. No worries. Don’t be afraid to throw in humor. And I wouldn’t preface it. This particular one just didn’t click with me. (Which might be more fuzz brain on my part this morning than anything else.)

            Definitely everything’s gotten too polarized. The initial version of my comment above actually used “liberal” and “conservative”, but in an attempt to side step politics, I went with “progressive” and “traditionalist”, although in retrospect those terms don’t escape it either. Sigh.


          4. Let’s buy ourselves some time and invent the words “advancementalists” and “customaryons” to use until they eventually get the stigma that these types of words are destined to. 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

  10. Not much doubt whether our hard-wiring constrains the scope and depth of our soft-wiring, at least as far as the scope and depth of the exercise of our intelligence goes .But exactly in what way? These are uneasily applied terms—hard-wiring and soft-wiring—in this still ignorant neurological age. Cultural accumulation and transmission of knowledge and know-how across generations, via natural-language competence, still for now tells the better story on human intellectual exceptualism (notwithstanding Trump), not least when informed by ( just a bit) of environmental feed-back on genetic expression.

    Liked by 1 person

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