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Babies are conscious? Science confirms what moms know.

Babies are aware of what's going on, not just reflexively reacting to it, scientists concluded after a series of experiments on babies as young as 5 months.

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Older babies show snappier processing, though still not as quick as adults, the researchers found. In 12- to 15-month-olds, the second phase is stronger than in 5-month-olds and occurs around eight-tenths to nine-tenths of a second.

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The reason for this delay probably has to do with the undeveloped nature of a baby's brain, Kouider said. The second phase of activity that accompanies consciousness arises because the visual parts of the brain send information to the prefrontal cortex, which sits in the front of the skull. The prefrontal cortex directs and maintains attention and is crucial to consciousness. This part of the brain also develops slowest, going through major changes at about a year of age.

Babies' brains also lack myelin, a fatty substance that sheathes nerve fibers in the brain. Myelin acts as insulation, speeding up signals from one area of the brain to another. Before the brain is fully myelinated, neural impulses don't move as quickly from the visual brain regions at the back of the brain to the prefrontal cortex as the front.

Conscious of pain?

The findings will be published Friday (April 19) in the journal Science. While parents can rest assured that their babies have a conscious experience of mom, dad and probably Elmo, the results have broader implications for medicine.

For example, Kouider said, researchers may be able to use similar brain-monitoring methods to determine when babies develop a conscious experience of pain. Until the 1980s, pain-relieving anesthesia was not automatically given to infants undergoing surgery, because doctors believed that infant pain was merely a reflex, not a conscious experience. (Surgeons weren't trying to be heartless: Anesthesia brought extra risk of death to the infant, a risk doctors didn't want to take given the accepted notion that babies weren't bothered by pain anyway.)

"Our study suggests that babies are much more conscious than we believed before, and they're probably much more conscious of pain when they experience [it]," Kouider said. Researchers might also be able to detect abnormalities in conscious experience before babies learn to talk, he added, perhaps leading to earlier diagnoses of disorders such as autism.

The researchers now plan to use even more inviting stimuli, such as toys babies like, to test whether familiar objects garner a quicker brain response. They also plan to test babies as young as 2 months old for consciousness.

Follow Stephanie Pappas on Twitter and Google+. Follow us @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on LiveScience.com.

Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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