Newborn Babies Learn While They’re Asleep

By Eliza Strickland | May 19, 2010 1:56 pm

infantDon’t be deceived by the peaceful look of a newborn baby asleep in a crib–that little tyke may actually be hard at work, soaking up information about the world. A new study has found that newborns are capable of a rudimentary form of learning while they’re asleep, which may be an important process, considering that infants spend between 16 to 18 hours a day in the land of Nod.

Researchers recruited one- and two-day-old infants for the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. With each sleeping baby, the researchers played a musical tone and followed that by a puff of air to the eyes, a mild annoyance that caused the infant to automatically scrunch up its eyes. As this sequence of events was repeated, the sleeping babies learned to associate the air puff with the tone, and soon began to to tighten their eyelids as soon as they heard the musical note, even if the air puff didn’t follow. Electrodes stuck to their scalps also showed activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in memory.

“It’s surprising how quickly they learned — the study took 30 minutes, but I think they actually learned this in half that time,” said researcher William Fifer, a developmental neuroscientist at Columbia University in New York. “We knew that a baby’s job is to be an information gatherer, a data sponge, but I don’t think we realized this also happens when they’re sound asleep.” [LiveScience]

This research is reminiscent of another experiment done by a different set of researchers last year, which found that some coma patients are capable of the same learned response (associating a tone with a puff of air to the eye). Neuroscientist Tristan Bekinschtein, who conducted the study on coma patients, says the work on infants suggests that there may be more gradations of consciousness than we understand.

Unlike adults, who are unconscious when they sleep, he suggests that sleeping babies may be in a semi-conscious state, allowing them to learn. “We do not know much about sleep in babies but it does not look like sleep in adults,” he says [New Scientist].

Related Content:
80beats: Vegetative Coma Patients Can Still Learn–a Tiny Bit
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80beats: Even Newborn Infants Can Feel the Beat

Image: Eve Vagg

MORE ABOUT: infants, learning, memory, PNAS, sleep
  • Jo dean

    Wow, babies are way cool dude.


  • Goodkat

    Great, now these kids will grow up scrunching their eyes every time they hear that tone.

  • Baddog

    Goodkat, the whole study took 30 minutes… I know they wont remember this…
    so even if they are 2 days old… thats .01% of their whole life…

  • Tooner

    ERm… anybody try the exact same s’periment with adults?

    Sounds simply Pavlovian to me… so babies and dogs, they’re special?

  • tooneriswrong

    tooner babies clearly are not dogs you have committed a fallacy. Though I do agree in the Pavlovian argument simply put i wouldn’t be surprised to see this activity in most life forms, and the interesting thing would be to see the difference between automated responses like this through different periods in different life forms. What would this enable us to discover? Reactive times in different cognitive states couple this with the musical aspect and there might be something interesting. Babies I recall spend a great majority of their time in a different state than other age brackets, however there is musical supplements that can vastly adjust cognitive state especially when the user knows how to control it sometimes I think that I can actually increase my signal strength on my phone enough to get it work through my brain, there is a sure fire way to get this to work for anyone who wants to simply place your phone to your chin, don’t believe try it next time. Warning probably causes cancer probably as in it does over long periods of time in fact there is so many broadcasted signals in the airwaves that I am sure it is affecting us somehow, next study transimmissions babies exposed to them babies protected in a no reception area?

  • Fay Lovecraft

    adults can learn while they sleep. for example, dreaming of the answer to a problem or dilemma.

  • ref

    This is seriously ridiculous, how is this not obvious for crying out loud. At every point of a humans life they are either storing data, combining data, or calculating data. This is not lost, just the more it is used the stronger the neural connections become, and the less it is used the weaker they become. There’s a fairly simple probability calculation for this. Now if you scientists want to tell me that I have no proof and i’m talking nonsense so be it, but its bloody obvious to me.

  • flepedia

    I think adults can also learn while they sleep

  • Pebbles

    that’s incredible.

  • Melainie

    That is very interesting. It makes sense to me, because my baby would sleep very lightly during the first few months. I guess she was too busy learning to fall into a deeper sleep.


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