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10 Ways Babies Are Smarter Than You Thought

by Nolan Moore
fact checked by Jamie Frater

What’s there to know about babies? They’re cute, they scream, and sometimes they sound like Bruce Willis. They’re also really smart. Sure, every parent thinks their baby is a genius, but truthfully, human infants genuinely are pretty intelligent. They can distinguish emotions, make logical deductions, and even grasp abstract concepts. In a lot of ways, they’re not so different from adults. Except they’re a lot smaller.

10Babies Can Understand Other People’s Thoughts

Before we get started, we need to establish how scientists “interview” babies. As you might’ve noticed, infants are a little lacking in the conversational department, so scientists rely on other methods to interpret baby behavior. When conducting experiments, researchers pay close attention to how long babies look at an object. If a baby encounters something surprising or confusing, the child will stare at that object for a very long time. Keep that in mind as we work through this list.

Now, it’s long been common knowledge that babies don’t understand that other people have different ideas and emotions from their own. However, with new discoveries in the field of babyology happening every day, researchers are starting to have a new appreciation for infants’ ability to understand the thought processes of others.

Agnes Kovacs of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest ran an experiment on 56 kids, all seven months old. The children watched cartoons in which a character who looked like a Smurf observed a ball rolling on a table. Occasionally, the ball would stop behind a rectangle. However, after the character wandered off, the mischievous ball would move off-screen. The babies knew the ball was gone, but the character didn’t.

When Papa Smurf came back and discovered the ball was gone (via a dramatic removal of the rectangle), the babies acted surprised. They stared at the screen even though they knew the ball had rolled away. Researchers theorize their display of disbelief was because they were relating to the character onscreen. They were reacting to his reaction. They understood what he felt.

Kovacs isn’t some rogue psychologist bent on bucking the system. A similar test in 2011 by University of Missouri associate professor Yuyan Luo showed similar results, as did studies in 2005 and 2007. So perhaps we’ve been too critical of babies. Maybe they really do know what we’re thinking . . . which means these monsters know exactly what they’re doing when they start screaming in the middle of the night. Jerks.

9Babies Can Separate Speech From Gibberish

Unless you’re Matt Smith, chances are pretty good you can’t speak “baby.” And since most infants aren’t voiced by Seth McFarlane, they have to jabber nonsensically while the rest of the world laughs at their adorableness. However, while babies can’t speak for themselves, they can definitely differentiate between actual speech and made-up gibberish.

Athena Vouloumanos of New York University played a series of recordings for a group of nine-month-old babies. The recordings included a wide array of noises, all of which could be divided into four sections. First, babies heard a female voice saying words like “truck” and “dinner.” Second, they heard a parrot mimicking human speech. Third and fourth, the kids heard human non-speech (throat clearing, whistling) and parrot sounds. While they focused on this eclectic mix tape, the babies were shown pictures of checkerboards, human faces, and a cup (basically, this was an avant-garde art show).

By noting how long babies stared at the images, scientists could tell if the kids comprehended what they were hearing. For example, when babies heard words spoken by a human, they stared at the pictures for a long time. They didn’t have a problem identifying the sound of a real person. As for the human sound effects, when the babies heard coughs and hacks, they didn’t pay any attention to the images on screen. They could easily tell the difference between language and gibberish.

However, things got trickier when the parrot started talking. If babies heard the bird say words like “two” or “bread” while staring at pictures of a face or a cup, they knew they were hearing speech, even if it wasn’t a human. But if the more human images were replaced with the more abstract checkerboard, the babies couldn’t tell the difference between the parrot mimicry and the parrot whistles. So basically, if you want to play mind games with your baby, buy a bird.

8Babies Know Animals Need Organs

Animals have guts. Anybody driving down a highway in the American South can attest to that. But when do humans first realize all creatures great and small are packed full of intestines? Is it something we discover for ourselves, or is it something we just know? According to researchers at the University of Illinois, it’s hardwired into our brains. Just ask a baby.

Professor Renee Baillargeon and graduate student Peipei Setoh believe babies understand basic physical and psychological facts. For example, if an infant sees something moving around by itself and responding to its environment, then the baby assumes the object is alive. Wondering if babies also understand basic biology, they gave toys to a group of eight-month-olds and then broke the toys in half. If the toy seemed self-propelled and agentive (making noises), the babies were perplexed. They would stare at the hollow insides for a long time, puzzled as how to moving, noisy objects could lack organs.

In a second test, babies were given items covered in fur. It’s believed that by eight months, most kids know that “fur” indicates “animal,” so the researchers wrapped cans in beaver pelts and rolled them past the babies. However, when the cans were revealed to be empty, the infants stared and stared. Where was all the squishy stuff? On the other hand, they weren’t surprised the stationary cans were hollow.

Aside from being a cute experiment, Baillargeon and Setoh’s project shed an interesting light on our history as a species. Humans probably developed an inherent understanding of animal organs in order to stay alive. When you’re a hunter-gatherer, it helps to know the difference between living creatures and inanimate objects. For example, if you know a deer has a heart, then you can spear it and eat it. If you club a wolf in the brain, you can save yourself from becoming dinner. However, in today’s less primitive world, the experiment can still come in useful if you’re a bored parent looking to torture your children.

7Babies Can Sense If Their Parents Are Angry

When you’re married with kids, things can get a bit tense. However, the next time you need to have a heated “discussion” with your spouse, you might want to step outside. It turns out babies—even sleeping babies—can sense if their parents are angry, and mad moms and dads might damage their psychological development.

In 2013, researchers from the University of Oregon had a group of mothers answer questions about how often they fought with their significant others. After the survey, the moms put their babies to sleep, and then the tykes were placed in an fMRI. As the machine whirred and banged, the babies napped while wearing headphones. While the kids snoozed, scientists played recordings of a male voice speaking gibberish. However, sometimes the voice was happy, sometimes it was neutral, and sometimes it was ticked off. All the while, scientists observed the baby’s brain activity based on their blood flow.

When the study was finished, scientists determined babies from “vocal” families responded quite differently to the angry voice than infants from more peaceful homes. Infants whose parents fought frequently had a much stronger reaction to the enraged recording, especially in areas of the brain related to stress and emotion regulation. Even though they were asleep, the babies could still sense hostility, and their brains responded negatively.

Though they’re not sure, psychologists worry that children exposed to parental arguing at an early age might grow up more anxious and stressed-out than other kids. So remember, parents, the next time you need to exercise your vocal cords, the baby is listening.

6Babies Can Learn Songs Before They’re Born

You’ve probably seen moms who put headphones on their bellies so they can blast Mozart at their pre-borns. While their musical experiment might not create a wunderkind along the lines of Amadeus, there is some proof that listening to music is beneficial during prenatal development. According to researchers from the University of Helsinki, music can aid in key areas like speech development. Even more fascinating, the researchers discovered babies have a natural ear for music and can remember songs they heard in utero.

In 2013, the Helsinki scientists had 12 mothers play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” for their fetuses five times a week, while a control group of 12 expectant mothers skipped the daily music sessions. After delivery, the moms brought the babies back for testing, and using an EEG, scientists measured the infants’ brain activity while they listened to the lullaby. Scientists found that babies who’d listened to Mozart’s melody in the womb still recognized the song after birth. In fact, the babies continued to recognize the song for up to four months.

It just goes to show the human brain is an amazing organ. It also proves you should be careful what you play for your kids, or they’ll have that awful voice stuck in their head for a long time.

5Babies Can Show Sympathy

Psychopaths aside, sympathy is one of the most basic human emotions. Defined as “feeling of concern for others,” sympathy helps us relate to those in pain. It drives every (legitimate) charity on the planet. And according to researchers at Kyoto University, it’s something we start feeling at a very young age.

In 2013, a team led by Shoji Itakura separated 40 babies into two groups and then turned on some rather zany movies. The first group saw a film where a malicious blue ball chased a yellow cube around the room. Despite the cube’s attempts to escape, the ball repeatedly hit the poor cube before smashing it against a wall. In the second group, babies watched a similar show, only this time, the shapes never interacted with each other.

Afterward, the babies were presented with toys, a blue ball and a yellow cube. In the second group that watched the violence-free program, babies showed no preference for either toy. However, in the first group that watched the vicious murder, 9 out of 10 babies chose the victimized cube. But were the children showing sympathy for the bullied shape? Or were they showing disdain for the bad guy?

To find out, researchers ran a second experiment. Twenty-four additional babies watched a show where a bully shape beat up a wimpy shape. Only this time, there was an extra character, a red cylinder that just stood there. After the show, two groups were offered two different sets of toys. The first group was given the villain shape and the neutral red cylinder. The second group was offered the victim and the red bystander. In the first group, babies overwhelmingly chose the cylinder. However, in the second group, almost all the kids chose the victim. Basically, even when the baddie wasn’t around, kids wanted to play with the bullied toy. They were showing sympathy for the victim. As for the rogue kids who chose the villains, well, they might end up in a future Listverse article on serial killers.

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4Babies Can Reason

Babies aren’t interested in philosophy. Most can’t even author a basic paper on the difference between Plato and Aristotle. However, despite their lackadaisical approach to the study of knowledge, Josh Tenenbaum of MIT believes babies are actually quite skilled at reasoning. In fact, he claims one-year-old infants are adept at making logical assumptions about how the world works. They even show surprise when things don’t match up with their expectations.

In his experiment, Tenebaum played a video for a group of one-year-olds that involved a container full of brightly colored balls. Three were blue, one was red, and they were happily bouncing around when suddenly the scientist covered the screen. While the babies’ vision was blocked, an object was removed from the can. When the scientist stepped away, voila—an object had disappeared.

What’s fascinating is that the babies reacted differently depending on what vanished and how long the TV had been covered. If the screen was blocked for 0.4 seconds and the object furthest from the can’s opening disappeared, the babies were baffled. How on earth did the ball at the back fall out first? However, if scientists covered the TV for two seconds, babies weren’t surprised at all if that same object disappeared. After all, there was plenty of time for it to roll out. The only exception was if the missing item was the red ball because, after all, it was different from the others.

So it seems that babies as young as one have a firm grasp on logic. It probably won’t be long before they’re reading “Discourse on the Method,” but let’s not put Descartes before the horse.

3Babies Understand Numbers

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who like math, and those who hate it (this author despises it). But regardless of personal opinion, math is a vital part of everyday life, and our understanding of numbers separates us from every other being on the planet. While animals can count (monkeys can even add dots together), only humans use symbols to represent numbers (like “two” or “2”). However, that poses an interesting question. Is this something we learn from our teachers, or is it knowledge we’re born with?

In 2009, Veronique Izard of Harvard decided to answer that question by experimenting on 16 newborns, and by newborns, we’re talking babies only 7 to 100 hours old. The test started with Izard playing recordings of spoken syllables. For example, the babies might hear the sound “raaaa” five times and then hear “ra” 10 times. Afterward, babies listened to the recording while looking pictures of geometrical shapes. The cards might show five circles or 10 triangles. Shockingly, the majority of babies stared longer at cards displaying the same number of shapes as syllables on the recordings. If they heard four “ras,” they’d look at the picture with four objects and so on.

Izard’s study proves that infants have an innate sense of numbers. They can count before they even develop the ability to speak. However, not all babies are created equal. Some kids are better at distinguishing numbers than others, and chances are good those intelligent infants will grow up with better math skills. Your author was not one of those babies.

2Babies Are Self-Aware

Unless afflicted with a disorder, humans are aware of their own body in the space around them. We understand where we are in relation to other objects and how we interact with the things around us. But what about babies? Are they self-aware? Do they understand the difference between themselves and the people around them?

Hoping to find an answer, Maria Laura Filippetti of the University of London worked with 40 newborns, ranging in age from 12 hours to four days. Their experiment involved a TV screen, a paintbrush, and a spin on a famous trick. Known as the rubber hand illusion, it involves stroking a person’s hand while hiding it from view. At the same time, you have to stroke a visible rubber hand. The simultaneous stroking tricks the subject into thinking the rubber hand is their own. While it’s great trick for boring parties (if you happen to have a spare prosthetic limb lying around), Filippetti decided to tweak the illusion for her younger audience.

Filippetti had babies watch a short film where an infant’s face was rubbed with a paintbrush. As the kids watched the tickle torture session on screen, Filipetti brushed the actual babies’ face as well. Sometimes the strokes were timed to match the action onscreen, while at other times, the strokes were delayed a few seconds. When all was said and done, Filippetti discovered the babies were fooled when stroked in tandem with the action on-screen.

However, when the strokes came late or when the movie was flipped upside down, the babies knew the difference between themselves and the kids onscreen. While the study was successful, here’s hoping the babies don’t develop an irrational fear of paintbrushes.

1Babies Can Tell The Difference Between Angry And Friendly Dogs

Since time immemorial, there’s been an epic war between dogs and babies. The babies mercilessly pull dog tails and ears, and the pooches respond with mouths full of sharp teeth. However, infants might have the upper hand in this deadly game of kid vs. canine. Not only have they got backup (i.e., parents), but babies are extremely good at picking up on mutt emotions, a key tool in preventing preemptive dog attacks.

Led by Ross Florn, researchers at Brigham Young University ran an experiment on 128 infants, ranging in age from 6 to 24 months old. These kids, who’d previously had little or no exposure to dogs, were plopped in front of two very different photos. One was a picture of a friendly dog, all tongue and wagging tail, and the other was a hound from hell with razor fangs bared. While the babies didn’t show preference for either image at first, they perked up a bit when scientists played dog sound effects, one happy bark and one angry bark. Each time they heard a growl or a yap, the babies reacted correctly, staring at the image of the corresponding dog.

What’s really interesting is that babies responded differently according to age. For example, when scientists played an angry sound, the six-month-olds stared at the mad mutt for a long time. On the other hand, 24-month-olds simply looked at the correct picture for a few seconds before moving on to something more interesting. For the older babies, it was almost like the conclusion was so obvious that it wasn’t worth their time. Hopefully, they’ll pay more attention if they encounter a real canine.

Nolan Moore was a baby once which makes him an expert on the subject. If you want, you can follow/friend him on Facebook or send him an email.

fact checked by Jamie Frater