In what has got to be the cutest scientific experiment you’ll read about today, researchers at the University of Florida have found that when newborn babies are getting their daily 16 to 18 hours of shuteye, they are not as zoned out as they appear to be. In fact, under the right circumstances, they could actually be learning.
In this first-of-its-kind study, psychology research associate Dana Boyd and her colleagues set out to discover just how newborn babies, who sleep most of the time, are able to learn so quickly. What they discovered is that compared to older children and adults, a newborn’s brain is quite active during sleep. So active, in fact, that they are capable of absorbing and learning from outside stimulus even when peacefully slumbering.
The researchers tested the learning abilities of sleeping newborns by sounding a tone and then immediately following up with a gentle puff of air on the baby’s eyelids. After about 20 minutes of this, 24 of the 26 babies being studied began to anticipate the puff of air, squeezing their eyelids tight after hearing the tone.
Why does this matter? Besides giving us all an adorable mental image of a little baby squeezing her eyelids shut, it could actually help doctors discover developmental disabilities in very young children. Because this learned eyelid movement represents the normal functioning of the circuitry in the cerebellum, the lack of it might provide early identification of babies who are at potential risk for developmental disorders including autism and dyslexia.