In National Geographic, Patricia Kuhl explains why a baby’s brain holds the key to understanding what it means to be human.

Photo caption: In Patricia Kuhl’s lab at the University of Washington, researchers study brain activity in babies less than a year old using a magnetoencephalography device, which measures the magnetic field around a baby’s scalp, to reveal the pattern of neurons firing.

How nature and nurture combine to shape the brain is nowhere more evident than in the development of language ability. How much of that comes hardwired, and how do babies acquire the rest? Patricia Kuhl and her colleagues are exploring a key puzzle of language acquisition: how babies home in on the phonetic sounds of their native language by the age of one. In the first few months of their lives, babies show a knack for discriminating between sounds in any language, native or foreign. Between six and 12 months of age, however, they start losing the ability to make such distinctions in a foreign language, while getting better at discriminating between native language sounds. Japanese children, for example, are no longer able to distinguish between “l” and “r” sounds.

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Watch as Patricia Kuhl discusses the combination of nature and nurture in shaping the developing brain.