Modern Family: Baby Bright

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Nov 3, 2014

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Don’t be fooled. For all their dimpled innocence, babies could well be thinking like adults in plenty of ways. Even as they sleep, drool and gurgle the days away, there’s truly much more than a little thought ticking behind those toothless smiles. That baby brain is powered to get to work early on.

If you’ve just had a child, you know the feeling. If you had one a while back, you remember it. So here’s the question every new parent ponders: what’s going on inside that tiny head, still so soft at its fontanelle top?

I had asked too, every time chubby cheeks chanced to bob up close to mine. Not a single post-feed burp session passed without me pressing ear-to-ear, tightly to that small skull, with absurd expectations – as if this would throw out a hotline to the rhythms that waltzed within each little bald head! When I talk about that today my kids laugh out loud. Relax, I assure them. There’s plenty that’s bizarre about motherhood.

It was once de rigueur to devour bedside books on baby brain activity. Not that my favourite parenting author was ever Dr. Spock. Or even Dr. Miriam Stoppard – wise words she dispensed, but I preferred those her ex-husband Tom strung together in his edgy plays. It was Desmond Morris I turned to. Always atop my bedside table, my bible was Babywatching, his cracker of a guide to the critical first twelve months of human life. In a portrait of the world that’s altogether realistic and revealing, yet wholly from a baby-centric point of view, the anthropologist attempted answers to eternal riddles. How do babies think and dream? What makes them cry or smile? How sharply can they smell and taste? How important is a mother actually to her baby?

Debunking adult-centred biases, Morris’s primer greets infancy squarely, shorn of cute observation. Rather than finding ways to make babies work for parents (through the old idea of “training”), he offers insights into their minds harking back to ape times.  I read two editions of Babywatching, fascinated by its focus on pro-attachment parenting from a biological perspective. Both the illustrated and text versions showed Morris fusing his zoologist and people-watcher skills to track criss-crossing patterns in the tiniest cranium.

It always will be interesting learning to probe emotionally provocative questions. Do men and women react differently to the sight of a random baby? (Yes, men’s pupils shrink while women’s grow larger – until the guy has a baby, when his pupils start expanding). Why do most mothers tend to cradle babies in the left arm? (They instinctively hold baby to the spot to hear the maternal heartbeat, regardless of a mom being right or left-handed.)

We know children indulge in refreshingly lateral lines of thought. Yet, in much the same way as adults do, one-year-olds recall things more easily by mentally grouping objects together. Research conducted by Johns Hopkins University psychologists Justin Halberda and Lisa Feigenson has shown extremely efficient short-term memory structuring in infants, who process information into chunks. Just as adults break down telephone numbers into smaller segments, so as not to forget a string of digits, similarly, fourteen-month-old babies better recollect missing toys and remember a greater number of objects if these are sorted into groups.

The tots in the study were also able to use spatial cues. Halberda and Feigenson bunched six identical orange balls in three groups of two, before hiding them. The babies searched the toy-box and looked around longer if they thought there were still more toys left to be found. The discovery of such neat memory-booster tricks used by toddlers suggests this isn’t a contrived or derived technique imbibed over time. It is, in fact, built into the youngest brain.

Feigenson believes that memory is far from a passive storehouse with carbon copies of our experiences. Right from birth, memory constantly re-organises to work at its peak capacity. Which is why – and we’re not talking about child prodigies – three-year-olds can read almost like adults, understand more than ten languages, solve binary math functions, display crack computer skills and play the piano, flute, harmonium, or almost any instrument. Analyzing and acting on the slightest stimuli they encounter, they are capable of grasping, absorbing and retaining thousands of facts by age four.

In India, self-actualising options like Infant Siddha Samadhi Yoga recognise that every child has amazingly sharp early receptivity that is seldom fully tapped.Infant Siddha Samadhi Yoga is an offshoot of a master plan devised in the mid-1980s by Prabhakar, who was a computer scientist, aeronautical engineer, and management graduate from Canada’s Western Ontario University.

The tenets of Siddha Samadhi Yoga to an extent echo the Suzuki Method pioneered by Dr. Sinichi Suzuki, who is credited with single-handedly sparking widespread interest in the violin in Japan after World War II.  He contended that toddlers learn languages or play music because they imitate what they hear, so anyone with the right training can master music.

Beyond a shadow of doubt, then, babies are clearly conscious of far more than we give them credit for. From sophisticated intelligence gathering and decision making, to engaging every sense, to using every waking moment to shore up information and processing it imaginatively – they do it all.

And yet, who can really say “Ah, I know what you’re thinking!” the next time those cherubic eyes fix an intent gaze.

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Written By Meher Marfatia

Meher Marfatia lives and works in Mumbai as a freelance writer and independent publisher. The author of 10 books for children and two for parents, she also runs a reading club for pre-adolescents with Rupal Patel. She has mothered her own kids well past the terrible twos and almost past the troubled teens. Reach her at: mehermarfatia@gmail.com

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