What’s going on inside that tiny brain?

As a mother of a one-year-old daughter, I don’t know how many times I’ve asked myself that question.

But now it's actually possible to peek inside the brains of babies--and see when and how things click--thanks to a new brain-scanning device created by researchers at the University of Washington's Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences.

The scanner is the brainchild of Andrew Meltzoff, a psychologist and co-director of I-LABS, and his wife, Pat Kuhl, pioneering researchers on early learning and language development. It senses brain activity using magnetic fields, rather than harmful radiation,  and apparently compensates for babies' constant wiggling--of course!

It seems like we're learning something new every day about how babies sense, process and react to the world around them. At the Infant Cognition Center at Yale University, researchers are probing the moral life of babies (link to the fascinating New York Times Magazine story from earlier this month, in case you missed it) by watching their eyes, which as poetry would have it, apparently do function as windows into the soul. They found that babies not only grasp rudimentary laws of physics and math, but also have an understanding of human behavior--how people think and why they act the way they do. (So my daughter is eyeing me skeptically when I ask her a silly question in a baby voice....)

While some of these abilities may in fact be hard-wired into babies' brains' as part of their intrinsic human nature, evidence is rapidly mounting on the nurture side of the argument. The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, based at Harvard University, released a working paper detailing the growing body of research that shows that environmental factors can vastly affect how and whether genes are expressed. The authors conclude that experiences, going back to the early pre-natal stage, can have lasting effects on brain architecture by chemically altering the structure of genes. The effects are most profound early in life, when children are exposed to new and novel experiences and environments.

The case for early learning and education only gets stronger the more we learn about babies' brains. The earliest years of a baby's life are critical--not only for how they express their nature, but how much they gain from a nurturing environment. During this period they build the vital brain connections that form the foundation for lifelong learning and success. All the more reason that we need to ensure that the earliest years count for all children, not just the lucky few.