Psychologist, UC-Berkeley; Coauthor, The Scientist In the Crib

I believe, but cannot prove, that babies and young children are actually more conscious, more vividly aware of their external world and internal life, than adults are. I believe this because there is strong evidence for a functional trade-off with development. Young children are much better than adults at learning new things and flexibly changing what they think about the world. On the other hand, they are much worse at using their knowledge to act in a swift, efficient and automatic way. They can learn three languages at once but they can't tie their shoelaces. 

This trade-off makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Our species relies more on learning than any other, and has a longer childhood than any other. Human childhood is a protected period in which we are free to learn without being forced to act. There is even some neurological evidence for this. Young children actually have substantially more neural connections than adults—more potential to put different kinds of information together. With experience, some connections are strengthened and many others disappear entirely. As the neuroscientists say, we gain conductive efficiency but lose plasticity.

What does this have to do with consciousness? Consider the experiences we adults associate with these two kinds of functions. When we know how to do something really well and efficiently, we typically lose, or at least, reduce, our conscious awareness of that action. We literally don't see the familiar houses and streets on the well-worn route home, although, of course, in some functional sense we must be visually taking them in. In contrast, as adults when we are faced with the unfamiliar, when we fall in love with someone new, or when we travel to a new place, our consciousness of what is around us and inside us suddenly becomes far more vivid and intense. In fact, we are willing to expend lots of money, and lots of emotional energy, for those few intensely alive days in Paris or Beijing that we will remember long after months of everyday life have vanished.

Similarly, as adults when we need to learn something new, say when we learn to skydive, or work out a new scientific idea, or even deal with a new computer, we become vividly, even painfully, conscious of what we are doing—we need, as we say, to pay attention. As we become expert we need less and less attention, and we experience the actual movements and thoughts and keystrokes less and less. We sometimes say that adults are better at paying attention than children, but really we mean just the opposite. Adults are better at not paying attention. They're better at screening out everything else and restricting their consciousness to a single focus. Again there is a certain amount of brain evidence for this. Some brain areas, like the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, consistently light up for adults when they are deeply engaged in learning something new. But for more everyday tasks, these areas light up much less. For children, though the pattern is different—these areas light up even for mundane tasks. 

I think that, for babies, every day is first love in Paris. Every wobbly step is skydiving, every game of hide and seek is Einstein in 1905.

The astute reader will note that this is just the opposite of what Dan Dennett believes but cannot prove. And this brings me to a second thing I believe but cannot prove. I believe that the problem of capital-C Consciousness will disappear in psychology just as the problem of Life disappeared in biology. Instead we'll develop much more complex, fine-grained and theoretically driven accounts of the connections between particular types of phenomenological experience and particular functional and neurological phenomena. The vividness and intensity of our attentive awareness, for example, may be completely divorced from our experience of a constant first-person I. Babies may be more conscious in one way and less in the other. The consciousness of pain may be entirely different from the consciousness of red which may be entirely different from the babbling stream of Joyce and Woolf.