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leah mclaren

Babies, it turns out, are smarter than we thought.

It's surprising because their cocktail party banter leaves a lot to be desired. When was the last time a baby gave you a searing insight into the situation in Syria, told you a dirty joke or even just asked you how you were?

I suspect the reason babies are often so dull is because they are notoriously self-involved. They are also refreshingly impervious to status anxiety. They don't really care how busy and important you are; they're unimpressed by money, fame or fashion. They're not curious about how your day was or your tax situation or about the fact that you haven't slept for more than four hours at a stretch in four months. Like the world's most tedious adults, they appear pretty much focused on their own needs, which are, in no particular order: sleeping, eating and pooping. Or so we thought.

Now, thanks to a recent study out of the University of California, we know that babies as young as six months may be able to reason using probability. And Hungarian researchers discovered back in 1997 that babies less than a year old were capable of understanding rational action (if an object behaved a certain way repeatedly, they expected it to be consistent). Then there's a 2009 French and American study which suggested that newborns might have the ability to recognize numbers: When newborns were played sequences of four sounds, and then 12 sounds followed by images of the same number of objects, they stared much longer correlating images, suggesting they had numerical sense.

All these studies (and many, many more) are emerging from what researcher Laura Schulz, an associate professor of cognitive sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently described in The Guardian as an "infant revolution" in neurosciences and psychology. "Babies know much more about the world than we previously believed," she told the newspaper. "They have a lot of prior knowledge, right from birth. They're very sophisticated learners."

In London, there are now two separate "baby labs" set up specifically for study of the infant brain; one is with University College London and the other is at Birbeck College. Similar academic outfits are studying infant cognition and language development across North America, from the University of Toronto's Infant and Child Studies Centre to MIT's Early Childhood Cognition Lab.

A generation ago, hardly anyone, save the early-childhood development pioneer Jean Piaget, seemed interested in what babies thought. When I was pregnant with my son a couple of years ago, I skipped Dr. Spock and read a dozen books on what was going on inside his (still gestating) mind instead. From Alison Gopnik's wonderfully whimsical The Philosophical Baby to Charles Fernyhough's intellectually rigorous The Baby in the Mirror, there is now a whole category of books devoted to explaining to new parents exactly what and how babies think.

I learned all kinds of fascinating stuff. Such as how, two months after birth, the synapses in my son's cortex were forming at a faster rate than they would in his entire life (about 1.8 million per second) and that the weird jazz hands movement he and all tiny babies do is called the Moro reflex, a response to a feeling of falling, when their position is changed.

I also learned some things I really wished I hadn't. Such as the theory that sudden infant death syndrome (the great fear of all new parents) is not a matter of sleep positioning, but the result of infants dreaming of the womb in REM sleep. According to the theory, babies don't need to breathe in utero, so in dreaming of the past they simply stop breathing in the present.

Babies are, by their very nature, deeply confusing to new parents. They are utterly dependent, physically fragile and without ways to explain themselves. I understand the urge to get inside their heads – maybe that way you can make them stop crying and be happy or better yet, sleep (but definitely keep breathing).

Although it is great to see all these institutes and labs staffed by their armies of researchers funded into the millions, I can't help but suspect that when we finally crack the mystery of the baby brain it might just be, "Mmmm … milkies," and "Would someone take this itchy hat off my head?"

I realize academic research isn't quite so service-oriented, but one hopes the practical application of such knowledge gathering might be helpful to someone beyond toy designers.

What's far more interesting than what babies think, in my view, is the way babies make us think, in turn. A case in point is Mary Gordon's successful school program, Roots of Empathy, which began in Toronto in 1996 and has spread to Germany, New Zealand and the United States. In this program, babies visit elementary-school classes at regular intervals so the students can watch and participate in the babies' development, fostering empathy and nurturing skills along the way.

It's often said that babies are magical, and this is true. But not because they're doing complex math equations in their cradles. Babies are magical for the reserves of love and empathy they bring out in us. Babies, I suspect, are much better at revealing our hidden depths then we'll ever be at revealing theirs.

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