Babies’ Brains ‘Rehearse’ Speech Months Before They Talk

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Photo: Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington

Babies: cute and fun to play with and/or dress up as Wayne and Garth, but not so good at the communicating verbally thing. But a new study shows that despite the lack of comprehension indicated by all that incoherent babbling, when infants of a certain age hear speech their brains kick into gear to try to figure out the mechanics of how to talk.

To the press release:

The study, published July 14 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that baby brains start laying down the groundwork of how to form words long before they actually begin to speak, and this may affect the developmental transition.

"Most babies babble by 7 months, but don't utter their first words until after their first birthdays," said lead author Patricia Kuhl, who is the co-director of the UW's Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences. "Finding activation in motor areas of the brain when infants are simply listening is significant, because it means the baby brain is engaged in trying to talk back right from the start and suggests that 7-month-olds' brains are already trying to figure out how to make the right movements that will produce words."

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The babies, 57 7- and 11- or 12-month-olds, each listened to a series of native and foreign language syllables such as "da" and "ta" as researchers recorded brain responses. They listened to sounds from English and Spanish.

The researchers observed brain activity in an auditory area of the brain called the superior temporal gyrus, as well as in Broca's area and the cerebellum, cortical regions responsible for planning the motor movements required for producing speech.

The results, the press release notes, "emphasize the importance of talking to kids during social interactions even if they aren't talking back yet."

Perhaps just as important, the researchers also discovered that babies getting their brains scanned are adorable, and they have video evidence. It gets even cuter when you imagine the kid is listening to death metal, though (hit one play button, then the other):

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