Logic arrives before words for human babies

A new study reveals that babies as young as one year old can think logically.

When you think logically to figure something out, do you think in words? Most of us do. For many, there’s a constant conversation going on in our minds: commentary, queries, and personal deliberations that rarely cease. But here’s an interesting question: When we were infants, before we knew words, were we capable of such logical thought? A new study published in the journal Science by a team of psychologists suggests that babies think logically in spite of their lack of language, at least if they’re 12 months or older. 


How the study worked

The study observed 144 pre-verbal babies, half of them 12 months old and half 19 months. (Babies under 12 months weren’t involved, so the study doesn’t rule out that infants younger than 12 months are capable of logic.)

Each baby sat in its mother’s lap during the experiment — the mothers remained motionless and silent and wore blindfolds so as not to unintentionally impart any cues to the children as they watched an animated sequence.

The idea was to create expectations on the part of the subjects and then observe them to see if they reacted when those expectations were frustrated. Each animation featured a pair of objects with the same top.

(Cesana-Arlotti, et al)

These objects were hidden behind a barrier, and a cup would swoop down behind the barrier and retrieve one of the objects. When the babies were shown the remaining object, they could logically infer which object was in the scoop.


Experiment for 19-month-olds (Cesana-Arlotti, et al)

Sometimes, though, there was a surprise.


(Cesana-Arlotti, et al)

Observing the babies’ reactions

Lead author of the study Nicoló Cesana-Arlotti explains, “It's a classic paradigm. When something unexpected happens, the infant looks longer because their expectations have been violated.” The researchers recorded the duration of those lingering gazes and also measured the difference in their pupil dilations when they witnessed something unexpected. The psychologists say these reactions indicate that the babies had developed expectations for what they’d see in the cup based on logical deduction.

Dark green shows the looking time for an unexpected outcome (Cesana-Arlotti, et al)

As for that deduction, the researchers also detected extended looks and greater dilations during what the scientists call the deductive stage — that is, when the babies have enough information to derive an expectation — v-b in the illustration below.

(Cesana-Arlotti, et al)

The Washington Post spoke to two scientists not involved in the study to get their take on the researchers’ conclusions. One, Susan Hespos of Northwestern University’s Infant Cognition Lab, says the study presents “an elegant series of experiments” and notes that seeing such young children using logic supports the possibility that “these abilities might be continuous over development.” But Lisa Oakes of the University of California at Davis Center for Mind and Brain notes that the authors’ interpretation of the infants’ reaction is not the only possible one. Maybe they were just looking longer because there were two different objects to keep track of.

Developmental cognitive psychologist expert Alison Gopnik says has told Big Think in the past that observation of babies’ behavior is really the best way to figure out what’s on infants’ minds.

Do babies already have a different language?

Did you just scratch your leg, or purse your lips, or look at something nearby? We make all kinds of such tiny decisions all the time, but we don’t hear ourselves doing so — it’s as if there’s a whole other conversation going on within us, but in a language we ourselves don’t speak. Did we lose the ability to hear it once we learn words? Are pre-verbal babies internally conversant in some private language we’ve lost? It would be fascinating to hear it in our own adult minds, at least when we wanted to. We’d certainly want to switch off the chatter when we’d had our fill of eavesdropping on ourselves.

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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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