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Brain Imaging Study Shows Infants Begin Learning At 3 Months Old

baby sitting on a couch playing with round blocks

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Key Takeaways

  • Infants can learn information as early as 3 months.
  • A study used imagining to observe brain activity as infants look at patterns and shapes.
  • Exposing children to experiences rich in detail is important, since they are processing everything they see.

As adults, many of our earliest memories of childhood probably start at the age of 3 or 4. A new study published in Current Biology shows that even prior to our ability to remember, learning begins as early as 3 months old.

Researchers used brain imaging to observe activity and shape recognition in infants and toddlers. The study gives insight into the ability to absorb information at an early age.

Inside the Mind of a Child

Researchers at Yale University collected brain imaging data from 17 children. The participants, ages 3 to 24 months old, viewed sequenced patterns and colorful objects. Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

They were able to see if a child had brain activity while viewing the objects. Testers focused on the activity of each child’s hippocampus, which is an area of the brain in the frontal lobe with an important role in learning and memory.

Researchers found that the hippocampus was highly active and learning information in children as young as 3 months old. Given the fact that it’s hard for adults to recall memories from such a young age, the results were somewhat surprising. Changes in the hippocampus were detected after just over two minutes of exposure.

“The study adds to our current understanding of memory development in infancy by affirming that our brains can begin storing specific types of memories…at an early age,” states Sakina Butt, PsyD, ABPP-CN, pediatric neuropsychologist at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.

Dr. Butt also notes that the study helps support previous findings while making unique insights of its own.

“Prior research related to parental facial preference has shown that humans display evidence of learning and recognition early in infancy. This study provides more evidence to support infants can learn in a way that was not studied before,” she adds.

The study insights were valuable, although researchers did not study the behavior of the infants during their times of pattern recognition. The behavioral component would have added to the value and understanding of the infants’ ability to process information.

Why Can't I Remember Things From Infancy?

The term “infantile amnesia” refers to adults being unable to remember events from very early childhood. People believed this phenomenon took place because the hippocampus in babies was not developed.

Now that this study shows the hippocampus is active at an early age, adults’ inability to remember may likely be related to a lack of explicit memory early in life.

Sakina Butt, PsyD, ABPP-CN

Explicit memory involved conscious recall of previously experienced events or learned information. Although an infant’s brain is capable of implicit memory processing from birth, explicit memory processing reaches functional maturity later in childhood.

— Sakina Butt, PsyD, ABPP-CN

“Explicit memory involved conscious recall of previously experienced events or learned information. Although an infant’s brain is capable of implicit memory processing from birth, explicit memory processing reaches functional maturity later in childhood,” Dr. Butt explains.

The Way the Brain Works

In addition to giving us greater understanding of infants’ ability to process shapes, the study results also highlight the importance of children learning in this way for language development.

Researchers note that the scope of what they learned goes far beyond the fact that babies can understand information.

“It isn’t necessarily all about just the brain development. A lot of it is about learning and how your brain learns about the world,” states Cameron Ellis, PhD, one of the authors of the study.

Dr. Ellis notes that he worked directly with Nicholas Turk-Browne, PhD, who is the senior author of the study. Dr. Ellis states they, along with other researchers, were also able to detect rapid growth in the hippocampus during infancy.

With the excitement of the findings, it’s important to note that a different region of the brain supports memory. So, the findings don’t mean it’s time to enroll your infant in a school program.

What Do We Do With This Information?

The study provides a lot of insight into an infant’s ability to take in information. As a result, we should try to optimize their experiences, without overwhelming them. It’s less about trying to get children to read earlier or be more advanced in school. Instead, it’s better to expand their horizons.

Cameron Ellis, PhD

It’s really important that we expose our children, and we raise our children in environments that are rich in detail and rich in experiences, because they are learning about everything that’s around them.

— Cameron Ellis, PhD

“It’s really important that we expose our children, and we raise our children in environments that are rich in detail and rich in experiences, because they are learning about everything that’s around them,” Dr. Ellis notes.

What This Means For You

The findings of the study may have you wanting to immediately enroll your child in a learning program. But keep in mind that exposure to a variety of interesting places and events can stimulate their growth and development. Give them the opportunity to explore and learn about the world around them.

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  1. Ellis CT, Skalaban LJ, Yates TS, Bejjanki VR, Córdova NI, Turk-Browne NB. Evidence of hippocampal learning in human infants. Curr Biol. Published online May 21, 2021. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2021.04.072