The ancient philosophers Descartes, Aristotle and Plato are among those who have pondered variations on the question: How much of our brain and mind are we born with and how much comes from being in the world?
“It’s an age-old debate, and one that we’re still having because it’s one of the most difficult questions to answer,” says Emory psychologist Daniel Dilks. “You can’t do controlled experiments to fully test the question in humans because you would have to take away a person’s experiences.”
Modern-day techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, offer a window into neural activity. Subjects must remain perfectly still and alert during scanning, however, making it difficult to do experiments with very young children. As a result, most measurements of children’s neural activity only go back to age four, at the earliest.
Until now, that is. As a post-doctoral fellow at MIT, Dilks was part of a team that successfully scanned the brains of awake human infants using fMRI. The researchers wanted to learn whether infants used similar neural mechanisms as adults to visually distinguish specific types of input, such as faces and objects.