Telegraph article: What babies' brains can tell us about the human race

10 December 2018

Telegraph article: What babies' brains can tell us about the human race

How early in life do our underlying personalities reveal themselves? How innate are the gender roles that society has lately been challenging? And what effect does technology have on young children’s development? All of these questions, and many others, can be explored scientifically, far more comprehensively than ever before, by studying the behaviour of babies.

At the start of our lives we are, you might say, a clean slate. By looking at how babies learn, we can understand how our brains work at any age. Because babies have not yet been set in their ways or conditioned, we can look at what happens the very first time they’re exposed to something – and it can tell us an awful lot.

I’ve been a paediatrician for eight years, with a background in psychology, and in a new three-part BBC documentary series, Babies: Their Wonderful World, which begins on Monday night, I set out to look for answers. 

The programme centres around an ambitious scientific study of 200 babies in Britain, the results of which were genuinely illuminating.

Here is some of what we discovered.


Is there something innate about gender roles?

Back in the late 90s, an experiment was conducted on children under two to see what assumptions they made about gender roles before they could even be consciously aware of the concept. The results showed that even young infants associated domestic work and childcare with women, and mechanical activity with men. 

Almost three decades have passed since then, and an awful lot has changed in society. Gender roles have been subject to particular scrutiny, and the notion that our sex defines what we’re good at has been roundly rejected by many. So how innate are our perceptions of gender roles? Are we naturally inclined to assume that men and women can’t or shouldn’t do the same things? Our study suggested quite the opposite.

We asked the babies to identify whether a “mummy” or “daddy” doll would perform particular tasks: cradling a baby, vacuuming the floor, playing rough and tumble, and so on. They noticeably did not share the assumptions of the babies of the 90s. Unlike before, we did not see a pattern of them matching each doll with the roles that were traditionally associated with its sex. 

What this points to is that these roles are socially created. That the world is not fixed, nor are gender roles static. This should encourage us to question how much is really inbuilt and hard-wired in us – and what, on the other hand, is not. Nothing, it seems, is a given.

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