The Learning Ability in Newborns’ Brains While They Are Asleep

Sleeping in a bassinet, a newborn baby wears a cap fitted with around 100 soft electrodes. A low beeping sound causes her to squint. Another scientist iswatching lines moving across the computer screen, recording the electrical activity in the infant’s brain. The scientists are curious about the happenings in her little brain. The tiny squinting shows that the baby has been learning while she is asleep.

According to William Fifer who is a neuroscientist at Columbia University a newborn baby’s instinct and task is to learn and adapt to the environment they are in. However with newborns spending 70 percent of their time sleeping, this job becomes harder to accomplish. Therefore Fifer and a psychologist named Amanda Tarullo from Boston University came up with an idea. They wanted to determine if the newborns are still learning while they are asleep.

To determine if newborns are capable of simple learning while sleeping, NIH-funded a recent study examining 1- or 2-day-old infants. The scientists made the babies feel a faint puff of air to each sleeping infant’s eyelids after playing a short musical tone. The newborns scrunch their faces when they feel the puff. After numerous attempts, the researchers played a tone without the air puff.

20 minutes later the tones made 24 out of 26 infants’ scrunch their faces without feeling the puff of air. Infants exposed to random, unpaired tones and blows of air did not tighten their eyelids in response to isolated tones.

The researchers state that this is likely the first study to show that newborn babies can learn relationships between events while they sleep. It is still unclear whether this quality is specific to infants or if it occurs in adolescents and adults as well.


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