Babies as brains: Is this the future of childhood?

A Review of the Netflix Documentary Series ‘Babies’

Baby=Brain!

Part 1: Introduction and overview

At the outset let me declare that a detailed review of ‘Babies’ will cover more than one essay because there is just so much to write. A single post would be fatiguing to read through, and I want to keep focus on examining every significant detail. This is not intended as a work of fiction and the producers claim to present the latest research on the “biology of the body” to discuss how early experiences can “change babies and caregivers”. Having watched the whole series, I believe that the assertions are serious enough to warrant careful audit and critical scrutiny to ensure that the messages contained in the narrative are in fact scientifically valid and ethically sound. As a developmental psychologist working in the field of childhood and culture, I am compelled to reach beyond the captivating cuteness of “mewling” babies (an expression that was new for me) and intimate scenes of dedicated and loving parents to ensure the veracity of the undisguised and hidden claims. So please bear with me.

This documentary is not to be confused with the exceptionally well-made film with the same title (Babies, or Bébé(s), in French), directed by Thomas Balmes that was released in the year 2010. When I raise a discussion about sample selection in the next post, I will mention the contrast between the two films regarding culture and coverage, particularly how the 4 babies in a single film provide us with more robust scientific material about the first year of life than this documentary series can ever hope to achieve. But let me not get ahead of myself. This is going to be a long journey and I have to hold back my disquietude to maintain balance. The cortisol levels in my body are high right now (an oblique reference to stress measures in the first episode) and I have to ensure that I am not carried away by my own ‘passionate’ response to ‘Love’, S1, E1. Experiences of ‘stress’, we are told by an expert, prevent babies from exploring their environment and keep them preoccupied with their own feelings ;).

The series presents scenes from the first year of life of 15 babies with their parents and siblings (if present). The episodes cover domains like Love, Speech, Food, Mobility, and Sleep, all important areas of concern among contemporary, urban, educated, affluent parents. I mention this group because, based on my experience with children and families in different ecological settings, I can say with confidence that unless something serious is manifested, concerns related to love, sleep, food, speech and movement are not universal. I have watched babies sleeping while sitting as this picture taken in rural Chattisgarh demonstrates. The child’s mother is part of the audience at a community health-care meeting and the child nodding off to sleep while sitting is not unusual, and our amusement at watching the ease with which sleep was being handled by the mother as well as the group was actually a cause for their amusement! In another instance of babies nodding off to sleep, we see infant Ponijao from Opuwo, Namibia, nodding off to sleep while sitting as the family goes about their daily routine. In fact, both the rural babies, Ponijao and Bayer (from Bayanchandmani, Mongolia) seem more to fall off to sleep rather than being urged to do so.

Scenes from a Sleep (Pictures: Nandita Chaudhary)

Health care meeting for mothers in rural Chattisgarh
The child in the centre begins to feel sleepy
Behind the camera, I notice her and others begin to notice me noticing her!
One of the healthcare workers reaches out to hold the baby while other children peer curiously
Deep sleep!

The sequence of events in the pictures above provides a graphic contrast to the isolated baby with electrodes on his or her skull that is used to introduce the series. Let me simply conclude by saying that this contrast (between the baby as a brain and the baby as a social being WITH a brain) is in fact an important springboard for our position on the series with the hope that the reader can gauge the tenor of our forthcoming comments. Stay tuned and have a great weekend. If you can find the time to watch the first episode on Love on Netflix, we can engage in more conversations around the series in the next post in which we will examine the scientific claims and ethical positions in detail. Please stay tuned.

Notes

An interview with Thomas Balmes about the making of Babies, the documentary film: http://content.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1986765,00.html

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