Okay, so this research into the phenomenon of twitching baby mammals (in the words of University of Iowa psychology professor Mark Blumberg, “literally every mammal that has ever been looked at” twitches) is really interesting, but I’m not going to dress this post up in futuristic scientific regalia (I was thinking a jumpsuit and a tri-corner hat made from a carefully folded periodic table). This is a bald, shameless excuse to post videos of adorable baby mammals twitching in their sleep. If some of Professor Blumberg’s insights seep into this post, I assure you: it’s merely a happy coincidence.
Aw, look at the baby puppy twitching! It’s probably having a nightmare about being chased around the room by a vacuum cleaner with the face of a werewolf, and, just when it thinks it’s reached a safe corner just beyond the cord-tethered vacuum’s reach, the vacuum breaks loose and becomes horrifyingly and impossibly cordless. That’s what must be happening, right?
Of course not! Stop trying to anthropomorphize baby puppy — it’s been alive for mere months. It doesn’t even know what the world is yet (it never will because it’s not self aware, but bear with me). In a recent interview with Nat Geo’s Virginia Hughes (whose YouTube links I’ve shamelessly repurposed), Blumberg attempted to untangle some of our misguided assumptions about why sleeping babies, puppies, kittens, marmosets, and beluga whales twitch in their sleep. No, they’re not chasing squirrels or blithely chewing on exposed electrical wires — they’re learning, argues Blumberg, how to use all their muscles and limbs, tools that they’ll use to propel their bodies gleefully through the waking world.
The idea that sleep twitches or spasms play a vital role in the development of a baby’s nervous system isn’t brand-spankin’ new, and Hughes offers several links to studies like Howard Roffwarg’s description of sleep-twitching newborn babies from nearly 40 years ago, or a Swedish study that reported that the muscle twitches in young rats during sleep helps program the cells in their spinal cords.
What, you’re still here? You haven’t rushed out of your home with a cardboard box reinforced with duct tape for catching stray kittens? Ugh, fine — Blumberg has noticed, through careful observation of sleeping baby rats, that what we in our hopeless myopia perceive as random flailing or twitching might actually be “quite ordered in space and time.” A baby mammal’s limbs, in other words, may follow a predictable flailing pattern, which could mean that all those sleep movements are really infant calisthenics for motor skill development. Explains Blumberg:
The brain is trying to understand, what are my limbs, how many do I have, and how many joints, and muscles, and how do they all move together? Once these simple commands are learned the brain can use them to learn more complex sequences. So that later, you can fire off a command somewhere in your mind, and generate a whole series of joint movements that would bring a bottle to your mouth, or make it possible to step.
That all seems perfectly sensible, but maybe we still need to dig deeper. Maybe what’s really happening is that baby mammals never really sleep. Maybe baby mammals just close their eyes and twitch in order to draw, “Awwws” from observers who think they’re witnessing a minor miracle of life in an effort to consolidate the Baby Mammal Consortium’s monopoly on Internet videos. Ever consider that, Professor Blumberg, hmm?
Why Do Babies Twitch in Their Sleep? [Nat Geo]
Image via Jagodka/ Shutterstock.