Neonatal Consciousness – What is it like (if anything) to be a newborn baby?

Alya Joy Denman, 25 days after birth, 32 weeks gestation

Five weeks after the nail-biting experience of having our twins born two months early, my wife and I have now settled into a routine of regular visits to the neonatal intensive care unit, where our little boy and girl try to complete the remainder of their gestation in perspex boxes.

And so, as they lie there, mostly peacefully but with occasional myoclonic jerks, hiccups and tentative openings of the eyes, I find myself wondering what, if anything could be passing through their little minds. Do they even have minds? Are they even capable of consciousness at such an early stage of development?

Do newborn babies have consciousness?

Somewhat like a river, consciousness seems an intuitively simple concept to grasp, until you actually try to grasp it, understand it, or look for its source. In fact, the more I  have read of this fascinating topic over the last few years, the harder it seems to pin down. For hundreds of years, philosophers from Descartes and Kant to modern-day luminaries such as Daniel Dennett have hunted for definitions and possible explanations for this common, familiar, yet elusive quarry. More recently, with leaps in our understanding of the human brain, experimental psychologists and other cognitive scientists such as Stephen Pinker, Bruce Hood and Sam Harris have joined the fray. While not all such scientists agree on the exact nature of consciousness, what extent of the animal kingdom has it, or how amenable it is to academic study, they do mostly seem to share the following common ground:

  • Consciousness can be loosely defined as an awareness of oneself as an independent entity in the world. For a living organism to be conscious, it must be “like something” to be that organism.
  • Consciousness does not exist beyond the embodied brain – i.e. dualism is false – there is no separate “noumenal” entity acting independently of the mind.
  • Our familiar sense of having a “self” acting as a free and independent author of our own thoughts and actions is largely, if not entirely, illusory – i.e. not at all what it seems to us.

And so back to our babies. Although as parents we may have an intuitive feeling that our babies must already be conscious, I find myself wondering to what extent, if any, this might be true. They react instinctively to sounds, smells, touch, light etc.  but are they “aware” of these things? Perhaps, in a totally here-and-now sense, yes, and perhaps these sensations can already induce basic emotions, but I cannot imagine that such things hold any real “meaning” for the baby. This makes me wonder whether they are experiencing the world in a way that is similar to that of many lower animals  – as a continuous stream of raw sensations and primitive impulses, but without context or meaning. As the American Philosopher, Thomas Nagel, famously pointed out in his 1974 article, “What’s it like to be a bat?” it is perhaps impossible to know such things with any certainty,  but it nevertheless seems unlikely that they are capable of anything approaching contemplation, planning or abstract thought. Ironically, such a state doesn’t seem too dissimilar from what many spend their lives trying to attain through various flavours of meditation, which makes me wonder whether perhaps mystics and gurus such as the Buddha achieve nothing more than returning to the state in which they had been born 🙂

Complex biological automata

A well-known thought experiment in philosophy of mind is the Philosophical Zombie, in which we consider a creature, physiologically indistinguishable from a living person, yet lacking conscious experience, qualia or sentience. But since I’ve never been fond of horror movies, I prefer instead to posit the existence of a diabolically complex robot or automaton capable of taking as input, a massive array of stimuli , and then reacting based on a combination of the wiring of its processing circuits and its memory of past inputs.

If we accept that such complexity is at least conceivable, and are content to discard the attractive yet fallacious notions of dualism and free-will, we must surely conclude that such a machine would be indistinguishable from a living person. In fact, I believe this is in essence what we are, extremely complex biological automata. Furthermore, if such things were ever built, they would, unlike philosophical zombies, also develop conscious experience, qualia and sentience. The only reason I believe this is so hard to accept, is the enormous range and complexity of our inputs (for example the thoughts occurring to you as you read this blog)  and the awesome processing capacity of our brains.

But this is why I find it so interesting to apply the same logic to our newborn twins. Although  the unique combinations of my wife’s and my genes have still brought two awesomely complex little brains into existence, these brains have so far had too few inputs to have created the trillions of connections and circuits which I suspect are necessary for consciousness to emerge.

What about memories?

It has been shown that babies react differently to voices and sounds encountered while in the womb, than they do to previously unencountered sounds, which would seem to indicate that they already have some ability to lay down memories even then. But then why can so few adults recall anything occurring before the age of 3 or 4? Bruce Hood, in his excellent book, The Self Illusion, suggests that this is due to a lack of narrative, and that by helping a young child create this narrative through recounting the events of the day or week in logical sequence, they can actually retain much better recall later in life.

The birth of consciousness

So while the basic structure of their brains is there, and at least part of the wiring diagram has been determined by our genes, many of the critical circuits (and I would suggest that consciousness emerges from a subset of these circuits) will develop over the coming months and years. In fact, contrary to previously accepted wisdom, it has recently been discovered that new neurons continue to grow throughout our entire lives. So with sufficient exercise and exposure to new learning experiences, the detailed wiring of our brains – and therefore our conscious experience – continues to evolve until the day we die.

Contemplating such things, while looking into the eyes of our premature twins, my curiosity, wonder and awe are balanced with intense feelings of joy, love and pride. I also become doubly aware of the enormous responsibility we have as parents in creating an environment in which our little automata will thrive and prosper to their full potential.


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Author, musician, science nut, & IT marketing pro. My first novel, CONNECTED, is a mystery thriller with a touch of speculative science & philosophy.

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