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Study: Your Five-Month Old May Have Conscious Thought

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When does your little one start noticing your face and smile? According to new research reported by Science, infants show signs of memory and awareness as young as five months old.

When adults see something that goes by too quickly for them to notice, the brain still shows activity in the vision center. Researchers also note a “late slow wave” when the person takes notice of the object and the prefrontal cortex picks up the signal.

To find out if babies showed a similar process, French scientists examined the brain activity of 80 infants ranging from five to 15 months old. The researchers showed the babies an image of a face for less than a second and then looked for fluctuations in the infants’ brain activity. The scientists call these brain movements event-related potentials, or ERPs.

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Sid Kouider, a cognitive neuroscientist with the French national research agency CNRS, observed a late slow wave in the five month olds and an ERP pattern that was similar to but slower than an adult’s in infants who were at least a year. He believes that this late slow wave may suggest conscious thought and working memory, and that infants as young as two months old may show the late slow wave.

Charles Nelson, a neuropsychologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, says that ERP components change dramatically during the first few years of life.

Plus: Developing Your Child’s Memory

"I would be reluctant to attribute the same mental operation (i.e., consciousness) in infants as in adults simply because of similar patterns of brain activity,” he wrote in an email to Science. Kouider replied that the components are indeed not exactly the same, but that the ERP pattern he observed had the same traits.

Kouider would like to study how the babies’ signs of awareness relate to language development and learning. "We make the assumption that babies are learning very quickly and that they're fully unconscious of what they learn," Kouider told Science. "Maybe that's not true."