At first glance, it may seem that newborn babies are entirely reliant on their adult caretakers. After all, they cannot walk, feed themselves, or speak. So it is easy to assume that they are blank slates when they are born and everything is taught or specially shown to them. However, there is evidence to the contrary. In fact, babies know a lot about humans and behavior before they are taught.
The basis behind various tests is a behavior called habituation, which is basically a scientific term for boredom. When babies are shown something over and over again, soon they stop looking and listening (not unlike adults). Using this behavior, it can be seen that babies actually know a lot about people.
If babies are shown pictures of happy people, eventually, they will habituate and no longer pay attention. However, when a picture of a sad person is shown to them, they take notice again. In this way, it can be seen that babies can tell there is a difference between facial expressions of sadness and happiness.
In another experiment, a picture of a moving person is reduced to a series of lights that correspond to the movement of the joints. Babies will pay more attention to the series of lights that are from actual human movement than a series of random moving lights. It appears as if babies know that it is to be a person, and how a person is able to behave.
Doctor Andrew N. Meltzoff was able to take this knowledge a step further by showing that new born babies, sometimes just a few hours old, could imitate facial features. If one were to open their mouth at a baby, an attentive baby would also open his or her mouth. The amazing thing is that this can only happen if the baby is aware of his or her own body. Otherwise, how would the baby know to move the lips to open the mouth? The baby would have to instinctively know that a person’s lips correspond to his or her own lips. Babies do not have access to mirrors; they cannot experiment and see what is on their face. The only way they can successfully mimic is to instinctively know that they are basically ‘human’ and the person in front of them is also ‘human’.
Babies are indeed more aware and self-aware than many people think. Imitation requires both a way to detect differences of people’s behavior and how to coordinate your own body to do the same. In such a way, babies are not born without any abilities, but rather, a most important ability of knowing who they are and what they can do.