The world’s changed a lot in 30 years, and so have babies’ brains
Infants’ perceptions of gender and race are often of their time, but where does nature end and nurture begin?
How early in life do our underlying personalities reveal themselves? How innate are the gender roles that society has lately been challenging? And what effect does technology have on young children’s development?
All of these questions and many others can be explored scientifically, more comprehensively than ever before, by studying the behaviour of babies.
At the start of our lives we are, you might say, a clean slate. By looking at how babies learn, we can understand how our brains work at any age.
Because babies have not yet been set in their ways or conditioned, we can look at what happens the very first time they’re exposed to something – and it can tell us an awful lot.
I’ve been a paediatrician for eight years, with a background in psychology, and in a new three-part BBC documentary series, Babies: Their Wonderful World, I set out to look for answers. The programme centres on an ambitious scientific study of 200 babies in Britain, the results of which were genuinely illuminating. Here is some of what we discovered.
Is there something innate about gender roles?
Back in the late 1990s, an experiment was conducted on children under two to see what assumptions they made about gender roles before they could even be consciously aware of the concept.
The results showed that even young infants associated domestic work and childcare with women, and mechanical activity with men.
Almost three decades have passed since then, and an awful lot has changed in society. Gender roles have been subject to particular scrutiny, and the notion that our sex defines what we’re good at has been roundly rejected.
So how innate are our perceptions of gender roles? Are we naturally inclined to assume men and women can’t, or shouldn’t, do the same things? Our study suggested quite the opposite.
We asked the babies to identify whether a “mommy” or “daddy” doll would perform particular tasks: cradling a baby, vacuuming the floor, playing rough and tumble, and so on.
They noticeably did not share the assumptions of the 1990s babies. Unlike before, we did not see a pattern of them matching each doll with roles traditionally associated with its sex.
What this points to is that these roles are socially created. That the world is not fixed, nor are gender roles static. This should encourage us to question how much is really inbuilt and innate in us – and what, on the other hand, is not.
Nothing, it seems, is a given.
How hardwired are our personalities?
Are you born with your personality already prewritten, or does it form as you progress through life, influenced by your environment and experiences? It’s the age-old nature versus nurture debate – and the answer, in this case, is both.
The fact is, our cutting-edge research on the formation of personalities reveals that certain traits do appear far earlier in life than we expected, and this is likely to have a genetic basis.
What we saw in the study was that children of six to seven months already had a sense of how they were going to respond to the world.
Faced with different stimuli – a scary mask, for instance, or an interesting but unfamiliar object – the babies consistently responded according to their “type” – with excitement, with calm, or with caution.
These are the three basic personality types we see in adults, too, and it’s fascinating to see how early they’re apparent among babies. However, it doesn’t mean they won’t change over time, but what we picked up was that babies, even as young as six months, exhibit the traits that are likely to accompany them through life.
So, it seems, a risk-taking baby is likely to grow up to be a risk-taking adult.
This has implications for parents: if you understand your child’s personality, you are better equipped to help them interact with the world around them.
A cautious child can thus be shown how to deal with something that scares them. At the same time, parents who are anxious themselves will often produce anxious children.
What you do as a parent really does make a difference.
And while this may feel like a burden of responsibility, it is really a positive thing. Parents have the power to help their children become better and to thrive. The effort they make isn’t wasted.
How bad for children is technology?
Received wisdom tells us screens are bad for our children. And certainly, when used as a substitute for human interaction, or as a surrogate for parenting, they become very problematic, especially for those who become heavy users and learn to depend on such things.
We know they can have a harmful effect on the sleep and attention spans of children, as well as on adults, who overuse them.
But is any use at all of technology for young children a straightforward no-no that’s likely to harm their development? Of that, I’m not so sure.
It’s been posited that gross motor skills can suffer when an infant spends large amounts of time using screens.
To test this out, we asked babies who use tech such as tablets or smartphones to walk along a straight line on the ground, observing how they managed this compared to those who don’t use any tech.
There was, contrary to expectation, no significant difference. Meanwhile, when we asked them to put pen to paper, the fine motor skills of the tech-using infants – namely their visual and hand-eye coordination – were appreciably superior to their tech-free peers.
This doesn’t mean we should all hand our babies a tablet; humans have developed fine motor skills quite happily without technology for millennia. And tech is certainly no substitute for the proper care and attention babies need from their parents. But used occasionally, and alongside other tools, it can be a helpful additional medium to aid children’s learning about the world.
Are we naturally prejudiced against those who are different?
Replicating an American experiment previously carried out in a predominantly white part of Washington state, we asked some babies in our study from a mostly homogeneous white English village to choose between two adults to play with. One looked like them, with white skin. The other was Asian, and thus visibly different.
The babies chose the woman who was white, even when they had watched her hand out toys in a way that was unfair and unequal, which would normally put them off.
Does this mean we are somehow naturally “biased”? Absolutely not. What it demonstrates is how readily babies are able to detect differences.
Skin colour was chosen in the study only because it is easily visible – we could have done the same thing with facial hair on men.
There’s evidence to suggest results would be similar.
Notably, other research has found white babies who are raised in diverse families or communities do not have the same preferences. Children from multicultural London, for example, do not worry about whether people look the same as them.
They prioritise fairness instead. Racial preferences are not innate; they are learned.
This is encouraging news, as it shows we can create more inclusive societies. The key is exposure to “difference” at a young age.
Are humans selfish at heart?
Some of the most profound and deeply moving findings of our research have been about human nature. Our experiments showed we’re attracted to fairness above many other things.
We are also attracted to goodness, and are able to start empathising with others early on. What we’ve seen is that humans are very social beings, innately co-operative and caring. This runs against the old assumptions that we are naturally selfish and competitive.
It’s a remarkable finding, really – it means that we are, by default, good people.
We just need to nurture the best in our children to ensure this is how they go on.
To me that’s an amazingly hopeful message about what it is to be human.
– © Telegraph Media Company