They are age-old questions, from the moment of birth: What's your baby thinking? How much does your child really understand?

"They're not just wailing away. There's something going on that's important to their development, right from the very beginning," said speech professor Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington.

Researchers at the UW are now using baby caps that can detect the most minute electrical current being sent out by a baby's brain.

Little Isabella is listening to a very unusual audio tape.

To most adults the syllables all sound alike, but in fact they are just slightly different. Believe it or not, Isabella, who isn't even yet talking, can tell the difference and her brain waves prove it.

"Their brains are set automatically to capture this information in ways that are completely surprising," said Kuhl.

Kuhl and her husband, psychology professor Andy Meltzoff, are two of the world's top scientists in the growing field of early learning.

Their research has shown up in every major magazine. Their book, The Scientist in the Crib, is now published in French, German, Chinese – more than 10 languages in all.

Several years ago, they started the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, bringing together 50 scientists at the UW, studying both the brain and behavior, and discovering that babies understand far more than parents or scientists ever thought possible.

"Babies learn more in the first three years of life than we ever will again," said Dr. Meltzoff.

What we know is they learn by copying us. In a very simple experiment, Dr. Meltzoff stuck out his tongue and found that even a two-week-old baby knows how to imitate.

"It shows that they're born learning. Really, babies are born learning," he said.

Perhaps more remarkable is what Dr. Meltzoff discovered with slightly older babies. If you show them how to play with a toy, even if you don't let them imitate immediately, they will save it in their brain. They'll imitate you when you give them the toy – up to four months later, demonstrating that babies have incredible memory.

"Often times, the parents would say, oh I know I've seen that toy before, but I can't remember what to do with it. And the baby would do the right thing," said Dr. Meltzoff.

"That's what's different about the brain of a baby," said Dr. Kuhl.

Meanwhile, Dr. Kuhl has spent years focusing on language. What struck her is that all mothers have a special way of talking to a baby.

Kuhl calls it "motherese," or "parentese," because dads do it naturally too.

Why do we talk that way? Are babies getting anything out of it?

It turns out they are.

"The vowels, if you measure ee, ah and ooh, in words like sheep and shoe and keys, they're much more distinct in motherese. They're further apart acoustically. It's like being able to show a baby, here's what to listen for. Here are the components," said Dr. Kuhl.

She discovered that babies learn about language long before they utter their first word.

In a speech lab, she took 9-month-old babies and exposed them to a second language, either Spanish or Mandarin. And after just 12 sessions over one month, the babies could detect subtle phonetic sounds in the foreign language.

"The babies in the United States, exposed in that way, are as good as the babies in Taiwan for example, at hearing the Chinese distinctions," said Dr. Kuhl.

Isabella was exposed to Spanish for a month, which is why she now distinguishes sounds that most English-only speakers cannot.

In another lab, Dr. Meltzoff is studying the crucial moment when a baby learns not just to look at mom, but to follow where mom's eyes are focused.

He said 10-month-old babies, who are good at following where an adult is gazing, had about twice as many words in their speech eight months later.

"So when she's around in the living room and says, 'here's a rattle, look at the rattle,' the babies need to know to follow where she's looking and that's what the word refers to," he said.

All these studies suggest that babies are learning an incredible amount that first year, and yet scientists cannot explain why we as adults have no specific memories of our time as babies.

We're tempted to think maybe there isn't that much going on in their brains, but Kuhl and Meltzoff say it's just the opposite, that babies absorb culture, language, social interaction, emotions – the most basic building blocks of who they'll become some day.

"The news is that babies are even learning from their peers at day-care centers, and learning from us so we're role models right from the beginning," said Dr. Kuhl.

"It is lasting learning. It's the kind of learning that makes a profound effect on the baby's brain and mental operations, and that sets them up for later."

Source:, WA