New approach proposed to identify emergence of consciousness in infants

A new approach to determining when consciousness emerges in human infants is being proposed by academics, offering a fresh perspective on a question that has puzzled psychologists and philosophers for centuries.

In response to a recent article in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, two prominent academics from the University of Birmingham have put forward an innovative method to assist scientists and researchers in identifying the onset of consciousness in babies.

Dr. Henry Taylor, Associate Professor of Philosophy, and Professor Andrew Bremner, Professor of Developmental Psychology, have delved into a new approach that involves identifying markers of consciousness in adults and then measuring when babies start to exhibit larger numbers of these markers in their development.

Dr. Taylor explains, “For example, imagine that in adults, we know that a certain very specific behavior, or a specific pattern of brain activation always comes along with consciousness. Then, if we can identify when this behavior or brain activation arises in babies, we have good reason to think that this is when consciousness emerges in babies. Behaviors and brain activations like this are what we call ‘markers’ of consciousness.”

This approach is particularly significant as infants, unlike adults, cannot articulate what they are conscious of. Professor Bremner highlights the challenge, stating, “It is really hard to establish when babies become conscious. This is mostly because infants can’t report their experiences and, as most parents will know, can be rather uncooperative particularly when it comes to experimental tasks. As we can’t just ask babies when they become conscious, the best approach is to try to identify a broad range of markers of consciousness, which appear in early development and late development, and then group them together. This could help us identify when consciousness emerges.”

The researchers also challenge the recent article’s suggestion that consciousness emerges early, arguing that it ignores other markers of consciousness. Dr. Taylor emphasizes the complexity of the issue, noting, “One of the complicated issues is that it does not look like all the markers point to the same age for the emergence of consciousness. The ones mentioned by Bayne and colleagues suggest somewhere between the third trimester of pregnancy and early infancy, but other markers suggest the age might be around one year old. In fact, at the really extreme end, some markers only emerge at around 3-4 years. Because there are so many different markers of consciousness which appear in early and late development, it is extremely hard to come to a conclusion.”

Professor Bremner concludes, “We propose that a broad approach to markers, including those that emerge in early and late stages, is needed. We also recommend that a range of developmental models of the onset of consciousness should be considered. We think that by clustering this broad selection of markers, we may finally be able to answer the question which has given us pause for thought for thousands of years. But it’s important to bear in mind that the answer may not be a simple one!”