For anyone who has spent long hours with a baby and wondered what they are thinking and feeling, the revelation of Alison Gopnik’s newest book, The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life is an inspiring illumination. Babies, Gopnik writes, are “learning machines” with the capacity to experiment and analyze their own observations at rates that would “put the most productive scientists to shame.”
Yet until recently scientists and philosophers would have insisted that human infants are essentially blank slates or “illogical and defective adults” just waiting for caregivers to fill them with the skills required to understand the world around them.
In this latest book, Gopnik, a professor of psychology at Berkeley and an affiliate of Berkeley’s philosophy department, has documented 30 years of research into early childhood development to prove that what we adults have always believed about infants is just plain wrong.
“Part of the point of this,” Gopnik said on a recent afternoon in her Tolman Hall office, “is that even the youngest babies and children are learning more than we thought possible, just not in the goal-directed ways that adults learn.”
Gopnik employs a useful comparative analogy to distinguish a baby's consciousness from that of an adult: the lantern and the spotlight. While adults are able to concentrate on a task without being distracted by minor events happening around them, babies take it all in, drawing conclusions about cause and effect and, more importantly according to Gopnik, about how adults feel and respond to the world.
She bases her startling appraisal of infant learning capacities on research she conducts in UC Berkeley's Gopnik Cognitive Development Lab at the Institute of Human Development and at the Child Study Center, a childcare facility for university staff and faculty families. She began her research career by studying, among other things, how language reshapes our understanding of the world. In the 1980s she was one of the first “theory of mind” researchers, studying how children come to understand their own minds. Later she helped develop the idea that children have intuitive theories and use many of the same learning mechanisms as scientists.
The gist of her research findings: In many ways, babies are actually smarter and more imaginative than adults.
“We start out with many, many brain connections but a great number of them get pruned away,” she says. “Many links get pruned down to a smaller and smaller number so that we shift from an early system of learning a great number of things to a system that’s more narrowly focused.”
One of the messages of The Philosophical Baby is that raising bright and successful children does not necessarily require playing endless classical music or hanging high-contrast mobiles over their cribs, but rather means creating a safe environment for them to explore.
In the age of No Child Left Behind, which sets highly structured learning standards for children in elementary and secondary school, parents may have become tempted to place their preschool-age children in similarly structured environments that emphasize goal-oriented learning and exposure to enrichment meant to raise their intelligence and prepare them for school.
But very young children, Gopnik says, are actually not suited for this type of structure. As the saying goes, a child’s play is actually their work. Caring for children may not require actively stimulating them as much as paying close attention to them.
“There wasn’t even a verb ‘parenting’ until recently,” Gopnik says. “And we treat parenting as a job, a special job, that requires us to do a bunch of things to turn our children into a certain type of adult.”
But this is not what good caregivers do, she continues. Good caregivers create a protected space so that babies can do what they already know very well how to do: observe the world and draw logical conclusions.
In addition to her work with graduate students, Gopnik, who is also the author of The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind, teaches the undergraduate developmental psychology course. Since joining Berkeley’s faculty in 1988, Gopnik has noticed some changes in the undergraduates she teaches. Few of them have spent very much time with babies. Having started out teaching the course with a more academic focus, Gopnik now includes much more anecdotal information about what babies are like.
“It’s pretty striking to have a room full of bright young people who know lots of things but nothing about human infants,” she says. “We are in a strange situation today, because many people are having children who never been around children. This is totally unprecedented. Somebody could be 35 or 40 years old and suddenly be taking care of a baby, but they have never picked up a baby.”
This simple lack of familiarity can tune adults out to the true — but different — wisdom of an infant in their care. A mother of three children herself, Gopnik started her scholarly life as a philosopher. She calls herself an “applied philosopher” and approaches developmental psychology with an aim of illuminating philosophical problems. For example, how do we develop ideas about morality? Is it just what our parents tell us, or do we have intuitions that tell us that hurting people is wrong?
Research shows that by just 14 months infants behave in genuinely altruistic and empathetic ways. They display an impulse to help a person who needs help and an understanding that hurting another person is wrong, Gopnik says. Studying young children can also help answer questions about how we come to understand that other people have their own minds and consciousness and what eventually makes each of us aware that we are unique beings.
“Looking at children can be a natural experiment,” she says. “They are creatures with a brain and mind that turn into brains and minds like ours, but they are very different. They can tell us about ourselves.”