Proof That Babies Are a Lot Smarter Than They Look

By Jake Schroeder
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Throughout history, babies haven’t exactly been known for their intelligence, and they can't really communicate what's going on in their minds. However, recent studies are demonstrating that babies learn and process things much faster than people initially thought.

We’re now learning that babies quickly develop basic forms of rational and logical thinking, in addition to being able to do even more complex things, like detect emotions. Discover some other ways babies keep surprising us with their intelligence.

A Baby's Classification Skills Are on Point

Babies see commonalities in objects, and as soon as they have enough experience in the world, they begin to classify things or put them into groups. This happens around the one-year mark because babies have some semblance of language.

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For instance, if a baby sees a cat and knows the word "cat," at first, all four-legged animals are "cats" to them. This means babies are classifying everything that looks at least remotely similar to a cat as a cat. They won't call a house or a carrot a cat — just things that have snouts and walk on all fours.

Toddlers Can Distinguish Who the Smart Adults Are

Everything babies know, they learn from observing the world around them. And they’re almost continually watching during their waking hours. As it turns out, all that observation pays off pretty quickly. By preschool time, toddlers can figure out which adults are likely to provide them with reliable information and which ones aren't.

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What's even more interesting is that, with their ability to pick out whom to trust for information, they don't even need to make eye contact or use gestures. Their understanding of speech is more implicit than that. They can tell when a person has the intention of teaching them something.

Peer Pressure Affects Babies, Too

The journal Cell Biology published a study in 2012 that found that toddlers are influenced by peer pressure — much the same as kids and adults are. They want to copy the behavior of their peers more often when more of them are doing something rather than just one other baby is.

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For instance, if three kids are taking a nap, a toddler would be more likely to want a nap than if just one other child was napping. With that said, keeping your baby around those who’ll be good influences on their behavior doesn't seem like such a bad idea.


Babies Can Detect New Languages

The shape a person's mouth makes and the movements of their face help babies discern one language from another, according to a study by the University of British Columbia. This is partly why it's so easy for babies to learn more than one language at a time.

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The ability to pick out one language from another begins at four months old. Furthermore, a baby who’s learning more than one language has more time before their brain becomes too rigid to easily learn different languages. If you want your baby to have more than one first language, they must learn early.

Playing Music Helps Babies Thrive Intellectually

The fact that music is related to IQ isn't news to anyone at this point, but now research has taken it a step further. Not only does listening to music bring intellectual benefits to a baby, but a Canadian study has also found that making music is helpful, too.

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One-year-old babies taking very hands-on music lessons tended to have better communication skills and emotional intelligence than babies who took less-involved music lessons, the study revealed. What's more, studies have also indicated that there could be a connection between playing music as a child and a decreased risk of developing dementia in later years.

Newborn Babies Can Count

Babies seem to be born with a sense of numbers and an innate ability to count just after leaving the womb. A 2009 French and American study determined this through an experiment using sounds. Researchers played newborns two different sequences of sounds, one of four sounds and one of 12 sounds.

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After they played the two sound sequences, they showed the newborns images of different quantities of objects. The babies stared longer at images with the same number of objects as they heard in the sound sequence, showing that they recognized the numbers somehow. Babies may truly be brilliant after all.


Babies Understand Others’ Emotions

Whether it's a peer, an animal or an adult, babies understand how others feel. They do this through body language primarily, notes a study published in Developmental Psychology. In fact, research indicates that infants pay more attention to angry faces and tend to look away from sad faces.

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Babies are so smart that, after seeing an argument, they may become distressed over it and have trouble sleeping later. It might be wise to keep disputes out of their sensory range. Other research from Brigham Young University even showed that infants may have the ability to register different moods in Beethoven's music.

Babies Get Joy From the Act of Giving

It makes babies and young kids much happier to give than to take. One study consisted of giving toddlers crackers and also giving crackers to puppets. When the toddlers had additional crackers to share with the puppets so both could have a special treat, they were much happier.

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The toddlers also gave the puppets the crackers they had designated as their own over the "extra" cracker. This shows their innate joy from the gift of giving. It also means that the altruism of human beings is potentially a part of who we are rather than a learned behavior over time.

Young Infants Know What Some Words Mean

Before they’re a year old, babies can link objects to the names of those objects. We know this thanks to a University of Pennsylvania study that showed some babies can start doing this at around six months old. How did researchers figure this out?

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Babies between six and nine months old looked at photos of body parts and food during the study. At the same time, their parents said simple things to them, like "Where's your ear?" It turns out, the babies paid more attention to photos with the named items in them. That shows that they understood what the words meant.


Young Toddlers Know What's Fair and What Isn't

A University of Washington study showed that, from around 15 months of age, babies can distinguish fairness from what’s unfair. Researchers were able to see this from having the babies watch videos with milk or crackers. When the foods were unevenly distributed, the babies paid more attention, showing they can tell the difference.

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What’s even more interesting is that babies who had greater discernment of fairness tended to get more joy from the act of giving in a later study. These complex ways of understanding and interacting with the world enter a human's life much sooner than we thought.

Babies Are Already Learning to Walk in the Womb

A newborn's motor skills aren’t developed enough for them to begin walking right away, but that doesn't mean they don't know how. You can test out this theory quite easily. Hold a baby under their armpits and rest the soles of their feet on the ground, tilting them slightly forward.

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Chances are, the baby will try to take "steps," straightening one leg and bending the other. Where on Earth did they learn to do this? In the womb, of course. During the final months of pregnancy, a baby can use their feet to move around, perhaps to prevent pressure sores.

Toddlers Read the Looks on People's Faces for Information

The facial expressions of trusted adults help toddlers learn the appropriate ways to react with the world. They’re actually "reading" faces to gain information. Here's a good example: It’s not uncommon to see a one-year-old baby look at their mother's face when someone new approaches. They look to Mom to see whether or not the stranger is friendly.

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Expressions are a lot more communicative than many people think, especially to a baby who’s familiar with the person whose expressions they’re interpreting. Reading expressions helps them distinguish danger from a simple lack of familiarity. With this information, they understand the correct reactions to different situations.


Babies Know When Someone Is Smiling at Them and Smile Back

It might seem like babies copy adult behaviors in general, but that’s not always the case. When a baby’s mom smiles at them — specifically at them — they’ll smile back. If Mom smiles without directing it at the baby, the baby won't smile back.

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Somehow, babies can understand why the smile is occurring and make the decision to smile or not. This is according to a study at the University of California, San Diego, that involved babies up to 17 weeks of age. The fact that the circumstances of the smile mattered to the babies shows an interesting level of cognition.

Babies Get a Kick out of Watching Bad People Get Punished

Who’d have thought that babies would enjoy justice being served? Research from the University of British Columbia acted out various scenarios to babies, some as young as eight months old, using puppets, with the puppets either acting in positive or negative ways to one another.

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When the puppets that were misbehaving subsequently received a toy, the babies were not pleased with that result. They preferred when the bad puppets were punished instead of rewarded. Because babies understand this so early in life, scientists now believe that wanting to see negative behavior get punished is an innate trait.

Infants Enjoy and Are Mentally Stimulated by Hearing People Talk

Talking to babies isn't just to please adults. Babies of all ages, including newborns, actually enjoy it when people talk to them. A baby's brain is developing so rapidly that hearing people talk helps to stimulate their intellectual growth, and babies enjoy the process of getting smarter.

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A baby's brain is constantly making connections and figuring out the world around them. It helps if parents speak directly to their baby, allowing them as many chances as possible to make associations between language, objects and activities. As such, babies whose parents talk to them often tend to develop faster.


Babies Can Develop Theories About People, Objects, Animals and Numbers

Babies can guess with some accuracy how likely something is to happen. In one study, babies saw a box of red balls with only a few white balls. When the box was emptied, the babies showed surprise when all of the falling balls were white.

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They understood that, in seeing not many white balls in the first place, it was improbable that so many white balls would come out of the box. Also, when an adult first looked into the box and picked out a white ball, the babies weren't surprised. They knew it was possible to pick out the white ball on purpose.

Newborns Can Understand Physics

Advancements in technology have allowed scientists to discern what a newborn is thinking with machines that read brain activity, even though the babies can't communicate directly. Studies show that a newborn watching a toy car going through a wall stares intently and longer than they do when watching things that don't defy the laws of physics.

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That shows babies have an understanding that solid objects shouldn’t be able to do things like go through walls, and it strikes them as strange when it does — thus causing them to stare. That's physics, albeit at a basic level, that newborns are comprehending.

Toddlers Realize the Complexity of Desire

The first thing a baby does in its worldly existence is learn about human psychology, more specifically, emotions. At around 18 months old, after a whole year and a half of thinking that everyone wants the same things they do, something changes. It’s at this age that they realize different people have different desires.

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This realization is essentially what's behind the "terrible twos." Toddlers begin to test how their desires differ from the desires of others. When a parent tells them not to touch a specific thing, they touch it to gauge the reaction and understand it more deeply.


Babies Respond to Their "Gut Feelings"

At only 20 months old, babies have already begun a complex way of thinking known as metacognition, according to this Paris study. That is, they’re able to have and respond to their own "gut feelings." Adults commonly engage in metacognition when a problem comes up that they’re unsure how to solve.

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Sometimes, we just realize that we know we don't know something. Apparently, babies realize that too. The fact they have the ability to recognize when they don't understand something is a little crazy to think about. It's a skill most people thought babies didn't develop until later in life.

Young Infants Can Recognize Faces

It only takes one week after being born for a baby to recognize their mother's face. By the time babies are six months old, they're pretty much experts at recognizing faces. Research from the University of Sheffield found that six-month-old babies are even better at recognizing faces than adults.

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This is surprising because a baby's ability to pick out specific facial features begins to decline at about nine months old. However, there are ways to combat this. By seeing pictures of people from various ethnic groups, they may be able to retain some of their facial-recognition skills into adulthood.

Infants Have Already Begun to Understand When Others Have Like Thoughts and Emotions

Babies can understand how people's minds work. They can discern when someone has feelings or thoughts that are similar to what they’re feeling and thinking. This happens as a result of experience. They see others having a positive or negative response and can understand if it’s the same or different from their own.

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Furthermore, babies understand that people have intentions and goals — that actions don't just come from nothing. They understand that people do things for specific reasons. This level of complexity and understanding of emotions and thoughts relative to others is pretty incredible.


Intuitive Analysis Isn’t Out of a Baby's Reach

The way babies learn to construct language and speak has to do with a kind of intuitive analysis that involves statistics. They hear regularities in speech and can differentiate between certain sounds and other sounds to identify them. They may not realize they’re differentiating, but they really are.

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This means they can take the information they get from hearing words and separate the words into syllables correctly. From that, as time goes by, they start the process of learning language and how to speak it properly. For example, they know that sillygirl is not sil lygirl, but silly girl.

Infants Can Tell When Communication and Attention Are Directed at Them

When an adult makes eye contact, infants can detect it. The way people speak in different pitches and intonations alerts infants to when others are interacting with them. They can also tell when someone is directly responding to something they did. When this occurs, infants pay special attention.

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This isn’t only true in person. Babies react the same way through live interaction on a webcam (though not with anything that’s pre-recorded). The back-and-forth interaction with direct attention given to the baby, including verbal and non-verbal communication, is an indication to them that someone wants to teach them something.

Babies Use Their Eyes With a Purpose

A baby's visual ability is excellent, particularly when it comes to communicating. Babies purposely do things with their eyes to get what they want. They make eye contact, shut their eyes, look past someone and deliberately explore with their eyes.

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These motor-eye actions help the baby regulate what’s going on in their life. Depending on what they do with their eyes, they can accept or reject affection and stimulation or dictate the duration of interactions. The fact that babies know how to do this shows that they're pretty smart after all.


The Empathy Babies Can Have for Struggling Adults Is Astounding

When a baby sees an adult struggling, their impulse is to try and help. This shows that babies understand struggle. Young babies have this perception and understanding, even if they don't yet have the skills to do anything about it.

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By 18 months old, if they see an adult having trouble reaching an object, they’ll stop what they’re doing and attempt to help. If the object is within their own reach, the toddler will grab it, go to the adult and hand it to them. This principle is called shared intentionality — understanding another person’s goal.

Infants Can Do Math

At just six months old, babies can understand basic arithmetic — addition and subtraction. A study performed a puppet show with two puppets. When the show ended, one puppet exited the stage, and the curtain dropped. Upon reopening the curtain for the first time, only one puppet was left on stage.

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The second time, when the curtain opened, two puppets were on stage. The babies reacted with great excitement to see them both on stage again, showing that they realized when there were too many puppets on stage for what had previously occurred. They understood the difference between one and two.

Babies Use Their Own Sign Language

Babies create their own sign language to show they’re still hungry or full. They show gratitude and express politeness, all without being able to talk. When an adult responds, they get confirmation and develop the ability to reason that they’ve found a way to "say" what it is that they want.

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Babies repeat specific hand motions if they garner the correct response from adults. They realize that if they make that motion with their hands, the adult will be prompted to get them their blankie, for instance. We call this a conditional statement, where if X happens, then Y will follow.


Babies Register When They Need Help

A study at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics found that babies determine when they need help. They gave eight-month-old babies toys, placing some of them just beyond the babies’ reach and some way out of their reach. When the babies had parents in the room, they tried for the toy that was farther away.

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However, if the baby's parents weren’t in the room, the babies didn't even attempt to get the farther toy. They only tried for the closer one. This shows that babies consider if someone is there to help them or not when determining what they should do.

Babies Know the Difference Between Real Objects and Pictures

In a study from Royal Holloway's psychology department, researchers showed eight- and nine-month-old babies a picture of a toy. The researchers showed the babies the actual toy plus a new toy. Both toys were put in separate containers — half in transparent containers and half in opaque boxes.

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The babies with clear containers reached for the toys that weren’t in the image. The babies with opaque containers reached for the toys from the image. Why? They already knew what the toy was from the picture and took an interest. This shows that young babies can tell the difference between a picture and an object.

Babies Have Causal Reasoning Skills

One researcher looked into whether or not babies could identify causal relationships. The experiment involved the researcher and another adult playing with a toy. When the other adult played with the toy, it worked, but when the researcher played with it, the toy didn't work.

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Because of what he had seen, the baby passed the toy to his mother, assuming it might work for her. They did another experiment in which the toy only sometimes worked for both of the adults. When the baby tried the toy, he then put it aside without handing it to his mother, understanding that it was a malfunctioning toy.