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Study: Babies Are Self-Aware From Birth

Study: Babies are self-aware at birth
Photograph by Getty Images/iStockphoto

Babies, ya know? They're always jerking their arms and legs around in nonsensical motions, or staring off into space with a silly grin. If you ask us, they don't exactly appear to know what's going on for much of those first few months.

But according to new research, while they may seem totally out of control of their bodies, they're actually more aware of things than we think–and that self-awareness starts from the minute they're born.

The new findings are a pretty big deal, considering that body awareness is an all-important developmental milestone, and babies who fail to develop it are usually later diagnosed with disorders like autism. So figuring out just when and how a baby becomes aware of their own body could be eye-opening for a lot of reasons.

To do so, researchers used certain techniques they've tried before on adults in similar studies. Previous data has actually proven that adults can be convinced a rubber hand is their own, if they watch it being stroked at the same time that their own hand (hidden from view) is stroked. Sounds pretty nutty, right? But apparently, it's for real. And since vision and touch work together to create our own body awareness, experts set out to recreate that same phenomenon in babies; just a little differently.

Here's how they did it: A team of researchers at the Center for Brain and Cognitive Development at the University of London tested 40 newborns who were each somewhere between 12 hours and four days old. The babies sat in the researcher's laps, in front of videos that showed another baby's face being stroked by a paintbrush. The researcher then did one of two things: they either stroked the baby's face with a brush at the same time as it was being done onscreen, or they waited and stroked the baby's face five seconds afterward.

For the second phase of the study, the babies were each shown the same video, but this time, it was flipped upside down. Researchers then struck up the same stroking techniques, this time alternating between simultaneous strokes and others that were now delayed by three seconds.

While all of this was going on, researchers took note of how long the babies stared at the screen during each test. (Scientists have to rely on how long a baby looks at images, since they can't yet verbalize interest.)

As for the results? Turns out, babies looked the longest at the screen when the stroking matched what they felt on their own faces. But when researchers flipped the images upside down, the babies no longer stared at the image for very long, and appeared to lose interest/not associate the movements in the same way.

"These findings have important implications for our understanding of body perception throughout development," said Maria Laura Filippetti, a doctoral student who took part in the study. She added that learning more about normal infant development will have huge impacts for autism research, since far less is understood about how kids with autism perceive the self.

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