My son 2 and 1/2 year old son Ari loves to laugh. And his laugh is so contagious. I believe one of the most magical sounds in the world is a child laughing. Some studies have reported that the average toddler laughs 300 times a day. We adults, in contrast, laugh less than 20 times a day. (And I’m guessing even less so on Mondays!)
I’m curious if these numbers are exactly correct – and if so – I’m curious how much the researchers laughed collecting these numbers from toddlers and adults! (Nice work, eh? Being a “laugh collector”!)
But even if the numbers aren’t 100% verified, there’s verifiable proof in every playground that babies and toddlers whooping it up far more frequently than the parents and sitters attending them.
As a Glad Scientist, I became curious about this – and discovered there are scientific reasons that babies and toddler’s brains are set up to find the world so amusing and fun. Indeed, because of how babies start off using their brains when they are first born into the world, they not only come into the world happer, but they come into the world teaching us a lot about how we can be happier, too.
Here’s the neuro-scientific scoop explained super quickly: Babies start off as super-conscious beings — little Zen Masters — because they use their brains differently from us grown-ups. Babies choose to lacksadaisically notice the quirkiest of details – unlike us grown ups, who choose instead to focus on what we believe is most essential to us. As a result, babies have a greater expanded consciousness than us grown-ups!
Okay, now here’s the neuro-scientific scoop explained more slowly: According to Alison Gopnik, a Berkeley psychologist, we adults use a pruning process of sorts to look at the world with our adult brains. Basically, our adult brains are set to focus only on what we have learned over time to be most important to us. This pruning process eventually allows for only a limited view of life. As a result, we adults might find ourselves instinctively choosing to focus strongly on the wrong bits of information. Or we might find ourselves neglecting important possibilities and helpful perceptions that could empower us to live more lovingly, successfully and happily.
A baby’s brain has many advantages compared with an adult’s brain. The “narrow consciousness” of our adult brains makes us a bit lacking when it comes to creativity and problem solving and finding intrigue and amusement in life. Plus, our limited consciousness also makes us less open to adjusting to the new and less able to be in the now.
In contrast, a baby’s brain is like a lantern, spreading a light of awareness which can sort through lots of seemingly irrelevant information, thereby being more receptive to discovering highly rewarding solutions and innovative concepts. A baby’s brain is also better able to notice beauty and experience delight wherever it wanders, being fully appreciative of the new, and present in the now.
You’ve heard of the Buddhist concept of “beginner’s mind”? Well, a baby is blessed with the ultimate beginner’s mind!
On an interesting side note, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that jazz musicians, known for being adept at musical improvisation, showed “dramatically reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex” when they were in the midst of improvising. Guess what? This is the same description of the prefrontal cortex area found in a baby. And these researchers also found that the more these jazz musicians were able to deactivate this prefrontal cortex — and think like a baby — the more they were able to spontaneously invent new, exciting melodies!
According to Gopnik, this reduced activity in a baby’s prefrontal cortex is also what blesses infants with the ability to stay open to improvising new and unusual responses to situations –often to their parents’ delight.
So how can you tap into some of this terrific expanded consciousness and think like a baby? The answer: Start meditating!
Both Gopnik and those Johns Hopkins University researchers compared the unwound state of mind found in babies and jazz musicians to the same open mindset found in those doing meditation. Indeed, Gopnik very much believes a baby’s consciousness is similar to the consciousness adults reach in a meditational state, a state where we find ourselves, as Gopnik describes, “dissolving attentional focus and becoming aware of everything at once.”
For many reasons, I found comparing a baby’s consciousness to the consciousness reached in meditation particularly fascinating. I’m a huge fan of meditation. I know lots of people assume meditation to be some Buddhist mumbo-jumbo, but it’s been scientifically documented to create therapeutic changes in the brain. In particular, Dr. Brick Johnstone, professor and chair of the Department of Health Psychology at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Health Professions, has performed many studies on how meditation affects the brain. He’s even pinpointed a specific change in the right parietal lobe, the brain region Johnstone describes as a human’s “self-awareness spot.” Meditating lessens the self-awareness spot and allows you to experience that I-am-at-one-with-everything feeling.
Johnstone has also noticed a quieting of this self-awareness spot during appreciation of art, nature and music, which may explain why people often say they lose themselves in a beautiful painting or scenery. He also noticed that a similar effect occurs during our experiences of romance and charity, the reason we feel selflessness when we’re sharin’ the lovin’.
With all this in mind, it makes sense that a baby’s expanded consciousness is similar to a meditating adult’s expanded consciousness. After all, a baby is a being who is highly open and in the now, fully receptive to seeing the beauty everywhere! Just like someone who meditates.
So if you want to be happier, start a regular meditation practice today, and start thinking like a baby.
Perhaps Baudelaire had it right: “Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will.”