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Somebody tell Peter Singer:

Almost nobody believes anymore that infants are insensate blobs. It seems both mad and evil to deny experience and feeling to a laughing gurgling creature. Still, there has to be some point in development when consciousness isn’t present, and though it is logically possible that it just switches on in a single instant—boom, the fetus or embryo goes from a parsnip to a person—it fits better with what we know about both development and consciousness that it emerges gradually. Since there is nothing neurologically special about the moment of leaving the uterus, this process most likely continues after birth. Perhaps babies are less conscious than we are or have some features of consciousness but not others. William James, for instance, famously claimed that the mental life of a baby is “one great blooming buzzing confusion.”

Gopnik’s own view is a clever and counterintuitive twist on James. She argues that babies are more conscious than adults. Her conclusion is based on the study of how attention and inhibition—the capacity to block out distractions—evolve over the course of development. Adult attention is willful and endogenous. Although it can be captured by external events—we will turn if we hear a loud noise—we also have control over what to think about and what to attend to. By sheer will, we can choose to focus on our left foot, then think about what we had for breakfast, then focus on . . . whatever we want. Adults are also blessed, to varying degrees, with the power to ignore distractions, both external and internal, and to stay focused on a single task.

This is all harder for babies and young children. They are largely at the mercy of the environment. Simple experiments demonstrate that babies are, for the most part, trapped in the here and now, a conclusion supported by the finding that the part of the brain responsible for inhibition and control, the prefrontal cortex, is among the last to develop. Gopnik uses the example of an adult being dumped into the middle of a foreign city, knowing nothing about what’s going on, with no goals and plans, constantly turning to see new things, and struggling to make sense of it all. This is what it’s like to be a baby—only more so, since even the most stressed adult has countless ways of controlling attention: We can look forward to lunch, imagine how we would describe this trip to friends, and so on. The baby just is .

More.

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