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10 Reasons Babies Are Tiny Superhumans

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by Rachel LaChapelle

Contrary to popular opinion, infants can do a lot more than eat, sleep, and poop. Here are ten scientifically proven baby superpowers that we were all capable of…once upon a time. 

1. Super Strength 

While a cherished moment for parents, a newborn’s first firm grasp on a parent’s finger is really just a reflex. Babies will instinctively curl their tiny fingers around any object that brushes against their palms in what's called the palmar grasp. The grip is strong enough to support the baby’s entire body weight, a feat few adults can boast of having. The palmar grasp is thought to be a vestigial trait, left over from the days when humans were hairier and babies clung to their parents’ coats like little monkeys. 

2. Super Taste

With three times as many taste buds as adults scattered across their tongue, palate, tonsils, and cheeks, babies have an acute sense of tasteTaste preferences begin to take shape in the womb, as babies can detect aromas in the nutritious amniotic soup they swallow, ingesting up to 15 ounces per day by late pregnancy.

The flavors found in amniotic fluid and breast milk change depending on what the mother eats. Researchers think this may play a part in cultural food preferences, as infants’ early exposure to certain flavors has been shown to affect their future palateIn general, however, infants tend to favor the flavors found in breast milk: sweet and umami. Youngsters, meanwhile, tend to have a sweet tooth because they need extra energy from sugars to grow. Their special hate for vegetables stems from the association of bitterness with poison, which they’re hardwired to avoid. As the sense of taste dulls with age, people often grow to appreciate bitter foods such as Brussels sprouts and beer.

3. Super Smarts 

Babies are born at the point in their development when their huge heads are on the verge of becoming too big to squeeze through the birth canal and their brains are much larger and more highly developed than their bodies. After birth, a baby’s brain continues to grow rapidly, reaching more than half of adult size by three months of age. 

Inside that big baby brain is the same number of neurons that adults have—around 86 billion. Babies build connections between those neurons, called synapses, with every new learning experience. By toddlerhood, they’ve formed 1,000 trillion synapses, about twice as many as adults. Throughout childhood and adolescence, a process called synaptic pruning rids the brain of the weak and unnecessary connections.

4. Super Senses

Some scientists theorize that all babies are born synesthetes, meaning they experience the world with interconnected senses that, for example, link colors and shapes [PDF]. A rare condition in adults, synesthesia can cause people to see sounds, taste words, or read letters and numbers in color. If babies do experience synesthesia during their first few months of life, it may be due to all that extra connectivity in the synaptic pathways of the mind that have yet to be pruned. 

5. Super Swimmers

Until around six months of age, babies naturally know how to swim with their eyes and mouths wide open. They can do this because of the diving reflex, which automatically seals off the windpipe to divert water from the lungs to the stomach. This is possible because of the high position of the larynx (voice box) at this age. The larynx descends later in infancy to make speech possible, and then again during puberty, which deepens the voice (the change is more obvious for boys, but also occurs for girls). The same anatomical quirk allows babies to swallow and breathe simultaneously, as they do while nursing.  

6. Super Animal Awareness 

Six-month-olds can determine the difference between angry and happy dog barks, according to a Brigham Young University study. The babies in the study, who hadn’t been around dogs much beforehand, matched the mood of a pooch’s woof to a picture of its snarling or friendly facial expression—and they got it right on the first try. 

7. Super Linguists 

Before they can speak, babies know the meanings of some words. One study showed that infants as young as six months looked at the matching picture when their parents named a common noun, even though most babies aren’t able to say any words until their first birthday. 

From the time they’re in utero until they learn to talk, babies pay a lot of attention to the rhythm and patterns, or prosody, of language. “Studies have shown that even babies who are just 24 hours old can distinguish between their language and a language that is prosodically different from theirs,” Virginia Valian, head of Hunter College’s Language Acquisition Research Center, told LiveScience. This is why babies in bilingual households can easily separate their two native languages. Infants’ observance of prosody also explains why baby babbling, as seen in this viral video, can sound like a conversation in tiny tot language. 

8. Super Sense of Justice 

According to researchers at the Yale University Infant Cognition Center, babies have an innate sense of justice and morality. In their experiment, young babies were shown a puppet show and then asked if they preferred the “Helper” (the nice puppet) or the “Hinderer” (the mean puppet). Even though the puppets looked identical except for the color of their clothes, the babies consistently reached for or eyeballed the nice puppet and avoided the mean puppet, suggesting that they can evaluate the difference between good and bad. 

9. Super Perception 

In The Philosophical Baby, University of California, Berkeley professor of psychology Alison Gopnik describes infants as having a “lantern consciousness” as compared to the “attention spotlight” of adults. Young kids are hyperaware of their surroundings, diffusing their attention like the light of a lantern instead of focusing in on one important thing like grownups do. To adults, it seems like little kids don’t pay attention to anything, but really they pay attention to everything. This way of thinking fosters learning, imagination, and creativity. 

10. Super Cuteness 

Ever wanted to pinch, nibble, and/or (figuratively) eat up a little one’s chubby cheeks? Researchers say the desire is triggered by the delicious smell of a newborn’s head, which activates the same reward circuits in women’s brains as food or other addictive substances. 

There’s an evolutionary reason why babies seem so darned adorable, and it’s basically to manipulate parents into feeding, protecting, and caring for the tiny and otherwise helpless humans. Babies still have a lot of growing and developing to do after birth, and adults are conditioned to respond to the big eyes and round faces (among the set of cute features that researchers refer to as baby schema) by giving them the attention they need to survive. 

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Big Questions
Where Does the Word 'Meme' Come From?
Steve Jennings/Getty Images for Civic Entertainment Group
Steve Jennings/Getty Images for Civic Entertainment Group

By Jenna Scarbrough

Certain fads, catchphrases, dances, and songs bombard our society—nowadays, almost all of these are either born on or popularized through the Internet. Grumpy Cat, Rickrolling, Left Shark, the optical illusion dress—all of these ubiquitous cultural sensations have this in common. Some of these stick for a while, some don’t. Those that stick are branded as memes. But what exactly is a meme?

In 1976, Richard Dawkins, the English evolutionary biologist, proposed an idea in his book, The Selfish Gene: What if ideas were like organisms, where they could breed and mutate? These ideas, he claimed, are actually the basis for human culture, and they are born in the brain.

Dawkins’s research is primarily in genetics. He has argued that all life relies on replication. But unlike cells, ideas do not rely on a chemical basis for survival. They begin from a single location—the brain—and spread outward, jumping from one vessel to another, battling for attention. Some ideas are more successful, which may be due to an element of truth they carry, while others slowly die out. Some may not be accurate, but society has accepted these ideas for so long that they are just accepted (think about pictures of Jesus or George Washington; while these may not be what they actually looked like, almost all art now portrays these men in the same way).

Dawkins needed a name for this concept. He proposed calling it mimeme, from the Greek word meaning “that which is replicated.” He wrote in his book, “I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme.” He felt the monosyllabic word would be more fitting because it sounds similar to "gene." “If it is any consolation,” he continued, “it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory,’ or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream.’”

Although he probably couldn’t imagine the possibility of Internet memes during his initial research in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Dawkins has now accepted the appropriation. Because it’s still viral, he said in an interview with WIRED, this popularity increase goes right along with his theory that ideas are similar to living things.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Words
25 Awesome Australian Slang Terms
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by Helena Hedegaard Holmgren 

Australian English is more than just an accent, and the Aussie vernacular can easily leave both English speakers and foreigners perplexed. Australian English is similar to British English, but many common words differ from American English—and there are many unique Aussie idiosyncrasies, slang terms, and expressions.

The term for Aussie slang and pronunciation is strine, and it is often characterized by making words as short as possible; the story goes it developed by speaking through clenched teeth to avoid blowies (blow flies) from getting into the mouth. So if you plan to visit the world’s smallest continent, this list of some of the most commonly used slang expressions is for you.

1. Arvo: afternoon

2. Barbie: barbeque

3. Bogan: redneck, an uncultured person. According to the Australian show Bogan Hunters, a real bogan sports a flanno (flannel shirt), a mullet, missing teeth, homemade tattoos (preferably of the Australian Flag or the Southern Cross), and has an excess of Australia paraphernalia. This "species of local wildlife" can be found by following their easily distinguishable tracks from burnouts or the smell of marijuana.

4. Bottle-O: bottle shop, liquor store

5. Chockers: very full

6. Esky: cooler, insulated food and drink container

7. Fair Dinkum: true, real, genuine

8. Grommet: young surfer

9. Mozzie: mosquito

10. Pash: a long passionate kiss. A pash rash is red irritated skin as the result of a heavy make-out session with someone with a beard.

11. Ripper: really great

12. Roo: kangaroo. A baby roo, still in the pouch, is known as a Joey

13. Root: sexual intercourse. This one can get really get foreigners in trouble. There are numerous stories about Americans coming to Australia telling people how they love to "root for their team." If you come to Australia, you would want to use the word "barrack" instead. On the same note, a "wombat" is someone who eats roots and leaves.

14. Servo: gas station. In Australia, a gas station is called a petrol station. If you ask for gas, don’t be surprised if someone farts.

15. She’ll be right: everything will be all right

16. Sickie: sick day. If you take a day off work when you are not actually sick it’s called chucking a sickie.

17. Slab: 24-pack of beer

18. Sook: to sulk. If someone calls you a sook, it is because they think you are whinging

19. Stubbie holder: koozie or cooler. A stubbie holder is a polystyrene insulated holder for a stubbie, which is a 375ml bottle of beer.

20. Sweet as: sweet, awesome. Aussies will often put ‘as’ at the end of adjectives to give it emphasis. Other examples include lazy as, lovely as, fast as and common as.

21. Ta: thank you

22. Togs: swim suit

23. Tradie: a tradesman. Most of the tradies have nicknames too, including brickie (bricklayer), truckie (truckdriver), sparky (electrician), garbo (garbage collector) and chippie (carpenter).

24. Ute: Utility vehicle, pickup truck

25. Whinge: whine

Good onya, mate! Understanding the Aussies should be easy as now.

Additional Sources: Urban Attitude; All Down Under - Slang Dictionary; Australian Words - Meanings and Origins; Australian Dictionary; Koala Net; Australian Explorer; Up from Australia; YouTube, 2; McDonalds.

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