The first breaths of air have since antique time been regarded as the ignition of life as indicated by the word spirits. The newborn becomes animated in this way – i.e. the emergence of consciousness. In modern time a bioethics committee1 has stated that when the new-born encompasses the capacity to breathe either independently, or with the support of a ventilator is the moral and legal point when human life must be preserved independent of gestational age. Awakening at birth is crucial for being conscious. This is triggered by the stress of being born i.e. mobilisation of catecholamines, cooling due to evaporation of the amniotic fluid and removal of placental suppressors when clamping the cord. The locus coeruleus is activated causing the arousal.
A spontaneous resting state activity has been found in new-born infants with fMRI.2 This activity may correspond to the idea of William James that there is a ”stream of consciousness”. It involves five hubs including the somatosensory system and the auditory and visual cortex in the infants. This is in contrast to adults where ten hubs were defied including the insula, precuneus and ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Thus the infant is probably only aware of what it feels, sees and hears in present time, while the adult relates the sensory input to memories, itself and also plans for the future.
Fransson P, Skiold B, Horsch S, et al. Resting-state networks in the infant brain. PNAS 2007;104(39):15531–36