MOTHERS will want to crucify me for this seemingly cruel question, but it needs to be posed: How do we know that a newly born and healthy infant is conscious? There is no question that the baby is awake. Its eyes are wide open, it wriggles and grimaces, and, most important, it cries. But all that is not the same as being conscious, of experiencing pain, seeing red or smelling Mom’s milk.
It is well recognized that infants have no awareness of their own state, emotions and motivations. Even older children who can speak have very limited insight into their own actions. Anybody who has raised a boy is familiar with the blank look on your teenager’s face when you ask him why he did something particularly rash. A shrug and “I dunno—it seemed like a good idea at the time” is the most you’ll hear.
Although a newborn lacks self-awareness, the baby processes complex visual stimuli and attends to sounds and sights in its world, preferentially looking at faces. The infant’s visual acuity permits it to see only blobs, but the basic thalamo-cortical circuitry necessary to support simple visual and other conscious percepts is in place. And linguistic capacities in babies are shaped by the environment they grow up in. Exposure to maternal speech sounds in the muffled confines of the womb enables the fetus to pick up statistical regularities so that the newborn can distinguish its mother’s voice and even her language from others. A more complex behavior is imitation: if Dad sticks out his tongue and waggles it, the infant mimics his gesture by combining visual information with proprioceptive feedback from its own movements. It is therefore likely that the baby has some basic level of unreflective, present-oriented consciousness.