Babies develop sense of self from just four months old

Babies as young as four months old possess the remarkable ability to comprehend how their bodies interact with the world around them, according to a recent study conducted by the University of Birmingham. This groundbreaking research sheds new light on the development of self-awareness in infants, highlighting their innate cognitive capabilities.

The research team at the Birmingham BabyLab carried out experiments involving babies aged four and eight months. The infants were shown a ball on a screen moving either closer or farther away from them. Interestingly, when the ball was closest to them on the screen, the babies experienced a small vibration on their hands, while their brain activity was monitored. The study’s data collection took place at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Surprisingly, the findings revealed that even at just four months old, babies exhibited heightened somatosensory (tactile) brain activity when a touch was preceded by an object moving towards them. This suggests that infants possess a natural ability to sense their surroundings and understand how their bodies interact with the space around them.

Dr. Giulia Orioli, the lead researcher and a Research Fellow in Psychology at the University of Birmingham, explained, “Our findings indicate that even in the first few months of life, before babies have even learned to reach for objects, the multisensory brain is wired up to make links between what babies see and what they feel. This means they can sense the space around them and understand how their bodies interact with that space, also known as peripersonal space.”

The study also explored how unexpected touches affected older babies, aged eight months. Surprisingly, when the touch on their hands followed the ball on the screen moving away from them, the babies’ brain activity exhibited signs of surprise. This suggests that as babies progress through their first year of life, their brains develop a more sophisticated awareness of their body’s position in relation to their surroundings.

The findings of this study, published in Scientific Reports on 21 November 2023, offer valuable insights into the development of self-awareness in infants. Andrew Bremner, Professor of Developmental Psychology, commented, “Seeing the older babies show surprise responses suggests that they had not expected the touch due to the visual direction the object was moving in. This indicates that as babies proceed through their first year of life, their brains construct a more sophisticated awareness of how their body exists in the space around them.”