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Parents & Carers

Six Superpowers We Gained From Being Babies

1/2/21

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Dr Caspar Addyman, Director of Goldsmiths Infant Lab, tells us six reasons why babies are amazing. Watch the video, or read the transcribed version below!

 

 

I'm Dr. Caspar Addyman, I'm Director of Goldsmiths Infant Lab. I've just spent the last two years writing this book, The Laughing Baby - all about what babies learn in those first two years. I'm here with six superpowers that we gained from being babies. 

Babies! They're fun, they're funny, they're adorable. I'm here to tell you that they're also awesome.

Now, every parent thinks their own baby is awesome, but are all babies awesome? I'm a developmental psychologist and I've spent 15 years studying how babies learn about the world, and I can confirm that yes, all babies are awesome. 

Superpower 1: A great start in life

The first two years of your life were probably the best years of your life. Sorry to break it to you, and I just don't mean all the naps, being carried around everywhere, everyone being pleased to see you, and being charmed by your charisma. Though those are all important. But, I mean that in those two years you learn more in any other point in your life and you learn the most important things in your life: the foundations of everything that came next. 

Even more amazingly, you had an incredibly good time doing it. You had a wonderful, joyful experience, discovering new things every single day;and that is not to be underestimated. The early start of a human life is quite different from any other animal’s. We have a very extended infancy and it's for a very good reason. We have a lot more to learn, and as a species, we have decided not to hard code everything into instinct and behaviour, but to learn everything from scratch every single time. This makes us incredibly adaptable. It also means we have to take a long period of infancy to learn all those skills. 

Superpower 2: A big brain

So, to learn all those skills, we need a big brain. Humans come with the largest brain relative to their body size than any other animal in the world. That comes with a problem, because you can't be born with that big brain - and again it's something we have babies to thank for. Human brains double in size in the first two years outside the womb. The development of the brain carries on in those first few years of life. This is why babies are so helpless for the first few months. They really ought to still be inside the womb, but that wouldn't be physically possible so we give birth to them early and this gives us big brains. This actually leads to a strange feedback loop which leads us to being all more clever.  

Researchers Celeste Kidd and Steven Piantadosi discovered that if you were going to give birth to helpless babies they're going to need more care. That's going to require parents to have a bigger brain creating a positive feedback loop which leads to us all being more intelligent. 

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Superpower 3: A long life

It might seem strange that being a baby is something that is responsible for our long life and old age, but actually, it seems to be the case. Anthropologist Kristen Hawkes has put forward something called the 'Grandmother Hypothesis', which observes that humans are one of the few species to invest in their children's children- their grandchildren. This brings with it an evolutionary pressure for us to have long lives. The reasoning works like this; as you get older you could invest in further offspring of your own or your genes could be passed on by ensuring that your children's children survive to adulthood. With human children being so helpless and it being such a labour intensive process to raise them, it seems to have been a better strategy to invest in our grandchildren which in turn selects for genes for people who are going to live longer and leads to old age. 

Superpower 4: Scientific enquiry

I'm a baby scientist, so I'm perhaps a bit biased when I say that babies are like little scientists. Although, perhaps I'm looking at it from the wrong end of the microscope. Psychologist Alison Gopnik thinks perhaps it's better to say that scientists are big children. All of the skills involved in science actually grow out from the curiosity that we have in childhood. The ability to teach yourself through a process of trial and error to discover laws in the world, to understand the causal processes behind things that we see- these are all completely key skills that a baby and a young child must learn in order to understand things. Very importantly, these are things that they have to teach themselves. In our ancestral times, adults would have been busy with things like hunting and gathering so wouldn't have been able to give children some direct instructions and also wouldn't have known what to instruct them on. Most skills in life are like riding a bike - it's only things you can learn by teaching yourself and the skills required to do that are very similar to the skills that are involved in the processes of science. 

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Superpower 5: Art!

What is art? Well, at some level, it's when we deliberately set out to convey a feeling or emotion to another person. Unlike having an argument or falling in love or sharing a joke, it sets itself apart from the actual feeling itself and is done deliberately through some medium in a repeatable fashion (like a painting or a piece of dance). Remarkably, one theory suggests that the very first time this ever happened was not through cave people painting on the walls of caves to celebrate their hunts. But, actually, a primitive mother trying to convey emotions to her baby, perhaps through a form of a lullaby. It's a theory put forward by Ellen Dissanayake. 

Superpower 6: Happiness

So, we've already said that the first two years of life are probably the happiest time in your life and we shouldn't be too dismissive of that fact. The scientific research about what makes us happy suggests that babies already knew a lot of the answers and we've simply forgotten them.

Science comes up with two big main things that contribute towards happiness. The first of those is something called 'getting in a flow state'. Psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, has identified this as one of the key predictors of adult happiness. Your ability to get very focused on what you're doing, to get wrapped up in learning new skills and learning new abilities- things that babies do every single day of their lives and which perhaps, as a result, we see in their happiness. The second, absolutely key thing to happiness is good, strong authentic relationships. You need to care about people and feel that they care back about you and you have to be genuine in your interaction with them. If you have a network of people where you feel a sense of love and belonging, then you will feel better about yourself. Again, if we look towards babies this is what we see. 

The third and final secret to happiness comes from meditation and mindfulness where the entire goal of sitting for hours and hours on end to focus on your breathing is to get yourself in the present moment. The more in touch you are with what's happening right in front of you, right at this moment, the more engaged with the world you'll be the happier you will be. This again is something that babies seem to do quite naturally. 

So there we are, six superpowers we gained by being babies. Thank you for watching and remember you can find out more of that in my book.

 

Dr Caspar Addyman is a developmental psychologist and director of the Goldsmiths InfantLab. He is interested in how babies adapt to the world and how we support their learning. He has investigated early concept learning, the foundations of language, time perception and sleep. His most recent research has looked at the importance of laughter and positive emotion in early life. Caspar’s book The Laughing Baby is published by Unbound in 2019. He is on twitter at @czzpr.

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