Consciousness may appear before we are born, scientists say

How do we become conscious beings? At what moment and where does our consciousness appear? These eternal questions of philosophers and scientists have again come to light in the light of recent research.

A team of neuroscientists and philosophers from Australia, Germany, the United States and Ireland conducted a literature review that pushes our thinking about early consciousness in newborns. The results of this study were published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

For a long time, philosophers and scientists have been faced with the problem of determining the moment when consciousness began. When does a newborn baby become aware of the world around him?

Some suggest that this does not occur until many months after birth, while others argue that the first moments of consciousness may occur soon after birth.

Tim Bain, a philosopher at Monash University in Australia, says: “Almost everyone who has held a newborn baby has wondered what it is like to be a baby. But, of course, we cannot remember our infancy, and consciousness researchers disagree about whether consciousness arises “early” (at birth or soon after) or “late”—by age one or even much later.”

A recent review of the literature has bolstered the idea that consciousness may begin much earlier than we thought. The study authors present four lines of evidence to support that consciousness emerges closer to the time of birth.

This evidence includes expanded brain connections, measures of attention, studies integrating information from multiple senses, and physical markers associated with surprise and redirection of attention.

“Our findings suggest that newborns can integrate sensory and developing cognitive responses into coherent conscious experiences to understand the actions of others and plan their own responses,” says Trinity College London psychologist Lorina Naci.

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That doesn’t necessarily mean consciousness is suddenly switched on at birth, but that we might expect a gradual awakening of experience that develops as synapses merge, senses blend, and cognition builds models that can be challenged as new stimuli appear.

Questions of whether awareness is piecemeal or complete, of whether fetuses dream, or even how we might relate to a newborn’s own awareness, are still far from being answered.

As brain scanning techniques improve and we can better map the complex weaves of neurological networks as they grow, we might come to understand consciousness as a continuum.

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