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Babies Are Smarter Than We Think

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“… there are things which we thought we knew and don’t know… I think nobody should be certain of anything.”

– Bertrand Russell 1960 (1960, pp. 12, 17)


We used to think infants were passive blobs, socially-unrelated, just eating, sleeping, and pooping as they grew up. We could not have been more wrong.

Babies Are Smarter Than We Think

We are in the midst of investigating the three keys of human development—feelings (affects), language, and cognition. As we will discuss later in future Newsletters, feelings, language, and cognition are profoundly inter-related. With the August 2017 newsletter, we completed our exploration of language. We turn now to cognition.

An Example
I observed the following a while ago: A father and his four-year-old son had stopped on their walk to pet a small puppy and a somewhat larger dog, which turned out to be the puppy’s mother. The father said: “Look at that, Joey! Just think… not so long ago that little dog was inside its mother’s tummy!” And his son replied: “Uterus, Daddy, uterus!” The little boy came from a medical family—and he had readily learned his anatomy.

So, What Is Cognition?

Cognition has many meanings, in common parlance as well as academic circles. Here we will use it in its every day usage, as intelligence, a process of knowing and perceiving, the individual’s accumulation and use of knowledge about the world, both outside and inside of themselves. The Latin roots are co (together) and gnoscere (know). Concepts such as reason, self-reflection, and mindfulness are related to cognition.

There exists a massive literature on cognition. Giants such as Piaget, Kagan, and many others are well-known and do not require summarizing here. Cognition is often discussed in terms of phases of development: as the infant ages, she is able to know, perceive, and understand increasing levels of complexity. This is the pioneering work of Piaget from the mid-20th century.

Cognition as Enigma—A Double-Edged Sword

However, first we must mention that, like emotions and language, cognition is not a foolproof system. It too is an enigma—a double-edged sword. How do we know what we know? Are we sure about what we know? Optical illusions provide the easiest example one might use to convey the possibility that our cognitive processes can be compromised. Two recent books—Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project—further highlight the question of our “knowledge,” given the complexities of the cognitive and emotional systems. These issues have been conceptualized differently by the various areas of inquiry. For instance, neurobiologists discuss the relationships between the amygdala (emotions) and the influence of the cerebral cortex (cognitive). Psychodynamic psychologists grapple with the interactions between conscious and unconscious processes.

So, now we want to focus briefly on two specific issues related to the origins of cognition. First, we will explore how babies are related so early to the outside world and people, which, in turn, stimulates learning. Second, next month we will examine the exciting recent research showing how smart babies are at a very young age and the implications of these findings.

I. Relatedness—And Cognition

So if cognition involves perceiving and the accumulation of knowledge, how does this happen? It turns out that babies are related to the world and people as soon as they are born – or, rather, even earlier, in utero, as pregnant women will tell you how their babies will respond to various stimuli.

The view of infants as passive, non-interactive, being in a state of “normal autism” – these notions have been dramatically overturned in the past three decades (e.g. see Stern, 1985). One just has to recall the infant’s innate responses to stimuli leading to interest or fear or distress to appreciate this capacity for interaction and relatedness.

How have we come to this different understanding? First, there was a flood of research and clinical work on infants and young children in the middle and second half of the 20th Century. Names such as Winnicott, Spitz, Ainsworth, Fraiberg, Greenspan, Emde, Kagan, Field, Demos, and others became well-known in the field. In his famous study of orphans, René Spitz showed years ago that infants who had food and clean surroundings would deteriorate and sometimes even die if they did not have caregivers with whom to relate and attach.

The crowning moment came with Daniel Stern’s brilliant integration of this research with clinical psychoanalysis in 1985 with The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology. In this work, Stern dispelled the notion of the infant as passive and unrelated. Instead, Stern’s infant is socially related and interested immediately. We discussed this previously in the section on affects, and we will explore it in more detail shortly. Unfortunately, while Stern’s work is well-known in psychoanalytic and developmental areas, the general public tends to be unaware of his importance.

We used to think infants were passive blobs, just eating, sleeping, and pooping as they grew up. We could not have been more wrong. Current research shows that babies are able to relate to their caregivers and surroundings immediately. They are programmed for social interaction and accumulation of knowledge.

Relating Through Feelings

Infants express their feelings through facial expressions, bodily movements, and vocalizations. Babies can express these built-in feelings almost from day one: interest, enjoyment, surprise, distress, anger, fear, shame, disgust (a reaction to noxious tastes), and dissmell (a reaction to noxious odors). Thus, they can clearly communicate with their caregivers and the rest of the environment very early on. And their caregivers respond to these communications—whether it is distress or enjoyment or anger, caregivers respond. The babies and their caregivers are relating.

Other Ways of Relating

How else do babies relate? Let’s not forget how helpless infants are—they cannot walk or talk; they have little limb control and poor hand-eye coordination. So what do they have?

What they have is a rather mature visual-motor system, as Daniel Stern points out. That is, they use their eyes and gaze as a way to relate. The face is a communication center par excellence. Babies can look directly into the eyes of their caregivers and explore (interest) with their eyes—or they can shut or avert their eyes, be glassy-eyed, and gaze past their caregivers. In these ways they can either make direct contact with their caregivers or can reject and protect themselves from contact. Thus, they can regulate the amount, timing and duration of stimulation and interaction.

So, infants can relate and engage and communicate with their eyes and gaze. They can cut off contact as well, by using their eyes and gaze. And then, as Stern puts it: “They can also reinitiate engagement and contact when they desire, through gazing, smiling, and vocalizing.” How’s that for relating!

Infants are social beings from the moment they are born. They are not passive blobs just waiting to grow up. They are sensitive to and respond to their environment. Using their expressions of feelings and their visual-motor system, they interact with and relate to their caregivers throughout their infancy, long before they can walk or talk.

This capacity for relatedness provides a foundation for the learning and cognitive capacities of babies. It is this cognitive world to which we will turn next month, as we will see how amazingly smart infants and young children really are and how eager they are to explore and learn.


Piaget J, Inhelder B (1969). The Psychology of the Child. New York: Basic Books (Originally in French, 1966).

Russell B, Wyatt W (1960). Bertrand Russell Speaks His Mind (First edition). Cleveland: World Publishing Co.

Spitz RA (1965). The First Year of Life: A Psychoanalytic Study of Normal and Deviant Development of Object Relations. New York: International Universities Press.

Stern DN (1985). The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology. New York: Basic Books.


Thinking, Fast and Slow
Author: Daniel Kahneman
New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011

This book at its roots grapples with the enigma of cognition—how cognition and emotions interact to call in question why we think and act as we do.

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds
Author: Michael Lewis
New York: W.W. Norton, 2017

Here is another book dealing with the enigmas involved in human cognition and emotions.

Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain
Authors: Dana Suskind, Beth Suskind, Leslie Lewinter-Suskind
New York: Dutton, 2015

This is a wonderful book highlighting the importance of early language exposure for children and their development.

About Paul C. Holinger, MD, MPH
Dr. Holinger is Faculty, Training/Supervising Analyst (Child/Adolescent and Adult), and former Dean at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis. He is also Professor of Psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center, Chicago, and a Founder of the Center for Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy.

His work includes articles and books on psychiatric epidemiology and public health (including suicide, homicide, and population trends over time), and infant and child development (including What Babies Say Before They Can Talk.).

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