Brain Learns to Detect Danger as a Baby Learns to Crawl

When an object approaches, it projects an expanding image on the human eye's retina, which for adults can signal danger of an imminent collision. We learn to jump out of the way when necessary.

Babies can't jump. And scientists have long wondered when this warning sign is activated in infants, and whether it has anything to do with their ability to learn to crawl. A new study finds a connection.

In adults, the "looming stimuli," as scientists call it, creates waves of neural activity in the visual cortex part of the brain. So researchers hooked 18 infants up to external brain probes to see what goes on in their wee little noggins as colored dot on a screen approached.

The infants’ looming-related brain activity clearly took place in the visual cortex, same as adults, the study found. The more mature infants (10 to 11 months old) were able to process the information much more quickly than those aged 5 to 7 months. That suggests the neural networks that register impending collision are not well established until around 10 months.

“This could be interpreted as a sign that appropriate neural networks are in the process of being established and that the age of eight to nine months would be an important age for doing so," the researchers conclude.

"Coincidentally, this is also the average age at which infants start crawling. This makes sense from a perspective where brain and behavioral development go hand in hand. Namely, as infants gain better control of self-produced locomotion, their perceptual abilities for sensing looming danger improve.”

The study was led by Ruud van der Weel and Audrey van der Meer, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. It is detailed in the journal Naturwissenschaften.