What Do Babies Think?

Author Alison Gopnik i i

hide captionAuthor Alison Gopnik

Kathleen King
Author Alison Gopnik

Author Alison Gopnik

Kathleen King

Alison Gopnik, author of The Philosophical Baby, dug into the long-avoided question about what's going on in little ones' noggins. Psychologists have long thought of babies as incomplete adults, but Gopnik thinks they're smarter than we think, and even, in many ways, more intelligent than adults.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Your 6-month-old won't stop sucking his toes. Your 2-year-old shouts uh-oh at the top of her lungs. Your 4-year-old tells you that Sam the Tiger wants Cocoa Puffs, too. At moments like those, parents wonder if their little children think at all. And then there are the moments, as you gaze into those impossibly big eyes, when you realize that bald head contains the wisdom of the ages. For a long time, most psychologists came down for option one: babies were regarded as incomplete adults.

Now, in a new book, psychologist Alison Gopnik argues that babies are much smarter than we think, in many ways more intelligent than grown-ups. Parents, tell us your stories. What have you learned from your baby? What does your baby do that keeps you guessing? 800-989-8255 is the phone number. The email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site at npr.org, just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, writer Ariel Dorfman on news today of arrest warrants on charges of torture and murder that date back to the days of General Pinochet in Chile. But first, Alison Gopnik joins us from the studio at the University of California, Berkeley, where she is a professor of psychology. Her book is "The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love and the Meaning of Life." And Alison Gopnik, nice to have you back on the program.

Professor ALISON GOPNIK (University of California): Well, great to be back.

CONAN: And for those of us still mystified by infants, what do we know about the way a little one thinks?

Prof. GOPNIK: Well, what we've discovered is that babies and young children really seemed to be designed to learn. So their intelligence is very different from the kinds of intelligence we typically think of for adults. So grown-ups are very good at planning, at doing things, at executing, at getting things done. Babies are terrible at all that.

CONAN: Yeah.

Prof. GOPNIK: But when - yes, as you may have noticed. But when it comes to figuring out how the world works, just learning about the world and being flexible, imagining new possibilities, that's where babies and young children really come into their own. And that's where they shine - and in some ways are even smarter than we are.

CONAN: Well, you described this as sort of adults have this flashlight intelligence that can focus on single tasks and get them done by excluding everything else, while infants have what you describe as lantern intelligence.

Prof. GOPNIK: Yes. Well, if you look at our understanding of how adult consciousness works, adult attention, it looks as if what happens when we're a grown-up is that we have - attention works like a kind of spotlight. So we narrow in on the things that are important to us, and we shut out everything else. And in the book I talk about studies we even have that show us how the brain actually manages to do that. When we look at babies and young children's attention, it's a very different picture.

So they're very bad at focusing in on just one thing. We say that they don't pay attention. What we really mean is they don't not pay attention. They can't weed out all the other distractions. That makes them not very good at doing things, but it's great at picking up any kind of information that's important. So I think for them, consciousness is like a kind of lantern. They're open to everything that's going on around them in a very rich way.

CONAN: There was a really interesting psychological study that's been referenced, and that is showing children two cards saying: ignore the one on the left and just tell us about the one on the right, remember the one on the right. The adults doing the same thing - and of course adults are pretty good at remembering that was the jack of spades on the right. And it turns out that children are incredibly good at remembering what the card on the left was, the one they were told to ignore.

Prof. GOPNIK: Exactly. And in fact adults, as you might expect, were much better at remembering the one that they were told to remember. But surprisingly, the younger children were actually better than say, older children at remembering the one that they hadn't been told to pay attention to. So it seems as if they have a kind of wider focus, an ability to learn more about more different things than adults do. And their consciousness is captivated by anything that they think might teach them about how the world works.

CONAN: And that - you used an interesting phrase a moment ago: their brains are designed differently. And that raised the question - I'm sure every parent has thought of this, too - what possible evolutionary advantage has there been to have this creature that's utterly helpless when born and pretty useless for many years thereafter?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. GOPNIK: Yeah, well, one of the puzzles is that we have a much longer period of childhood than any other species. And I think even really devoted moms like me occasionally think, oh, why can't we be like those cats that just toss them out after a couple of months? It turns out that if you look across the animal kingdom, that long period of immaturity is correlated with intelligence and flexibility. And if you think about it for a minute, it kind of makes sense. If your strategy is to learn as much as you can about the world - and that really seems to be the human strategy - then that's a great strategy. It's the reason why we can exist in all sorts of environments, including outer space. But it has one big disadvantage, which is, you don't want to be sitting there when the charging mastodon is coming toward you and saying, hmm, what tool would be most effective for dealing with this mastodon? You want to have a period in which you can do all that learning that you're going to put to use as an adult. So one of the things I say is, it's like babies are the R&D department of the human species. Evolution seems to have solved this problem by giving us a division of labor where the young creatures get to learn and imagine and think of possibilities. And then us old creatures take what we learned as children and actually put it to use.

Another thing I say is, it's more like metamorphosis than growth except the babies are the butterflies that get to flutter around, and we're the caterpillars that have to take what we know and hump along our adult path.

CONAN: Well, as you can imagine, we've got listeners that have loads of questions about this. And 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us: talk@npr.org. We'll get to those in just a minute. But one more question before we go to the callers. How do we possibly know this? You can't give a, you know, an 18-month-old a questionnaire.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. GOPNIK: Right. Well, one of the reasons why there's been such a change in our view of babies is that we had to learn how to ask babies and young children questions in their own language. And it turns out that that language often isn't language. So in order to find out what babies think, we have to look at what they look at or what they reach for or what they give you. And even with 3-year-olds, even if you ask a 3-year-old a question and you get either silence or beautiful stream of consciousness monologue, you'll do much better if you actually ask the child something like, well, make this machine go.

CONAN: And you - but you also talk a lot about babies who are pre-verbal. I mean, how do we possibly know what they're thinking?

Prof. GOPNIK: Well, let me give you an example of one, wonderful, recent experiment by Faye Shu(ph). who's now a colleague of mine at Berkeley. And she looked at 8-month-olds, and she wanted to see if they could understand something about statistics. So what she did was show them a box full of mixed-up ping-pong balls - 80 percent red and 20 percent white. And then she showed them an experimenter who either took out mostly red - four red and one white ping-pong balls, or mostly white - four white and one red ping-pong ball -from the box. Now - then she looked to see what the babies looked at most intently. And if the experimenter did sort of the expected thing, chose the right sample, random sample from the population, four red and white, the babies didn't look as much as if she did the unexpected, novel, remarkable thing, that's four white and one red. Just like a scientist who says, hmm, this phenomenon is less than 0.05 by a statistical - test.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. GOPNIK: What is going on there? So by looking at this very simple thing, where the babies looked longest, Faye could figure out that they had these tremendous capacities to learn about statistics.

CONAN: All right. As I promised, let's get some listeners in on the conversation. We'll start with Ruth. Ruth calling us from Bountiful in Utah.

RUTH (Caller): Hi. I agree with you. There's a lot more going on than you would think when you look at a baby. I was telling them, when my daughter was 15 months old, she couldn't quite walk yet. She would just watch her sister put together puzzles all day long. Just sit and watch and watch. And I thought, well, there's nothing going on in her mind, she just is content to watch. And then when she learned to walk around 16 months, she went over and picked up one piece out of her puzzle, and hid it behind the couch.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUTH: You know, her sister could not finish that project without that one piece. She knew enough to go take the piece and hide it. But she could not do a puzzle yet herself. And I - how could she possibly know that from just watching?

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUTH: There's a lot going on. That child turned out to be an Asperger's savant. But at that age, I just thought nobody was home, you know? That's kind of how they come off, is there's - I think there's a processing that's non-verbal that's going on, but I figured - and I don't think they worry. I don't think, after having seven kids, small babies, they'll have worries. They just don't bring all that into their decisions. They just do. They just react - do.

CONAN: Alison?

Prof. GOPNIK: Well, one of the things that we know is that small babies are already figuring out a lot about things like what people want. So that's consistent with that story.

Sort of surprisingly, recent studies show that, you know, even 7-month-olds already understand something about the fact that when someone reaches for a toy, for instance, that they want the toy. And by the time they're 18 months, they know something about what will make other people happy or not so happy.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Ruth.

RUTH (Caller): Okay, thanks.

CONAN: Bye-bye. A lot of this has to do with the development of the prefrontal cortex. That's the part of the brain that's just behind the forehead there. And it's - well, it does a lot of good things, but it does a lot of things that, well, restrict our intelligence in some ways - at least, you argue that.

Prof. GOPNIK: Yeah. Well, the prefrontal cortex is one of the most distinctively human parts of the brain, and it's a great part of the brain. It's sort of like where our CEO is located. It's like head office.

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that lets us inhibit our responses, that lets us not pay attention to things. It lets us plan for the long term. And those are all great abilities.

The prefrontal cortex, though, is also one of the parts of the brain that takes the longest to mature, to take its final shape, in some cases not until kids are in their mid-20s. And what that suggests is that to begin with, again, we're not really very good at being executives, but we're very good at learning all the things that an executive will need later on.

CONAN: We're talking with Alison Gopnik about her new book. It's called "The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell us about Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life." Let's - if you'd like to get in on the conversation, give us a phone call. Our number is 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org.

Here's a fact - another fact you may not have known about babies: They love TALK OF THE NATION. Well, we don't have a lot of research to back that up, but there is more going on in that little head than we realize. More with Alison Gopnik in a moment, and more of your calls.

Again, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Later in the program, we're going to be talking with Ariel Dorfman, the author of "Death of a Maiden," "Exorcising Terror: The Incredible, Unending Trial of Augusto Pinochet," "Widows," and others about news today from Chile, that arrest warrants have been issued for crimes allegedly committed as long as 35 years ago, during the overthrow of President Salvador Allende by General Augusto Pinochet. Stay with us for that.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. For all you parents who heard Alison Gopnik say babies are smarter than we think, don't take that to mean you need to stock up on every learning toy and video on the market. There are no perfect toys, she says, no magic formula. Just let them play.

Alison Gopnik is a child psychologist, the author of "The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell us about Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life." You can read more about how babies learn. We've posted an excerpt from her book at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Parents, tell us your stories. What have you learned from your baby? What does your baby do that keeps you guessing? If she's not chewing on your cell phone right now, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's go next to Liz, and Liz calling us from Harrison in Michigan.

LIZ (Caller): Hi. I'm calling about my - the smartest grandchild ever born, Henry. He just turned a year old, but when he first was learning how to crawl and, you know, self-motivate himself around the house in his walker or crawling around 7, 7 and a half months old, my son, his father, is a guitarist and always kept on a stand in the living room his very fine guitar.

Well, of course, that was little Henry's goal in life, was to get his dad's guitar. So one afternoon, while Henry was sleeping, Dad switched out guitars for another guitar that - Grandma can't tell the difference. You know, unless you can read the label, I don't know, you know. But Henry woke up from his nap, came out, went to his usual task of trying to get to Dad's guitar, took one look at it, went to Dad's bedroom door and started trying to get in there, where he knew the good guitar was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIZ: He didn't want the knock-off. He didn't want the (unintelligible) guitar. He wanted the good…

CONAN: The real thing.

LIZ: …the real guitar.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIZ: And now, he was asleep the entire time. That same child, his parents taught him sign language. And early this summer, around 8 or 9 months old - you know, the very simple, basic, baby signing - he knew - he knows no. He knows doggie, a bunch of other very simple things.

They took him to the zoo, and he's a very calm baby, which I believe that sign language has taught him not to be frustrated when he has needs. He can express himself, and they're not trying to figure out what it is.

They got the child to the zoo, and all he could sign was in an absolute panic: no doggie, no doggie. He's seeing all these animals, and he knew they weren't dogs, but he had nothing, nothing. He knew nothing what they were, and he was a wreck.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIZ: When they went home, Mom exposed him to a lot more stuff. A couple of months later, they take him back, and he people-watched, didn't pay any attention to the animals.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: It's…

LIZ: The guitar thing was just so…

CONAN: Well, to some degree, it makes sense because the guitar is obviously a huge part of his landscape, and he would notice that instead of the Empire State Building, it's suddenly the Chrysler Building.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIZ: Right, exactly, except for me to look at it, you know, it's a six-string guitar. The keys are all on the same side. They're both black body, natural neck. They're very, very similar for me, besides the labels that are written on the head stock. I can't tell the difference.

CONAN: Well, Liz, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

LIZ: Thank you.

CONAN: I wanted to follow up, though, on her point about language, and sign language in her case. This is an email from Denise(ph) in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.

My daughter moved from Oklahoma to Germany after college. She married a German man who's also a gypsy. He speaks no English, so every day, my 16-month-old grandson hears his parents converse in German, hears his father converse in Roma with other members of the family, and hears English from my daughter. So a few weeks ago, he comes home from his playgroup singing what? "Frere Jacques."

And it speaks to that ability, you write about it in the book and it's well-known: Small children have this incredible facility to learn languages.

Prof. GOPNIK: Yeah, that's right. That's one of the things that we're starting to understand, and I think this is one of the ones where what we've discovered has some real practical implications.

I think people often have the intuition that children aren't going to be able to track more than one language, and all the evidence is just the opposite, that children are so good at learning language that they very happily will learn two or three languages, and with nothing but good effects. All it does is make it easier for them to learn yet another language.

So that's one where I think we really underestimated how much babies and children can do, and that makes a difference to even what we would do with them.

CONAN: Let's talk with Mike, Mike with us from Milwaukee. Mike?

MIKE (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

MIKE: Oh, yeah, I was listening to your show, and there's a nifty experiment. I did it with my kid. When they reach a certain age, you can teach them to count to eight. So you put eight coins on the floor, and they'll go one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. But that's sort of like a rote memory. And what happens then if you put eight matchsticks right next to each coin and then quickly ask them how many matchsticks, they won't be able to know it's eight.

And so I think what we're doing is, baby sees everything as a whole, but what they're learning, basically, is just to cut up the whole into parts. They're just learning little bits and pieces of the world, but they can't generalize. They can't reason with that, and…

CONAN: Is that right, Alison Gopnik?

Prof. GOPNIK: Well, I think it probably isn't right in the sense that what we're discovering - we've discovered a tremendous amount about children's understanding of number, in particular. And it turns out that even very, very, very young babies, babies under the age of a year, already have some simple ideas about at least simple numbers, like numbers up to three or four. There's even some evidence that those babies can add and subtract, put together numbers to make other numbers up until about three or four.

MIKE: Try my experiment. See what happens.

Prof. GOPNIK: Well, part of what happens, again, is there's a difference between understanding numbers and getting the number words right. So this is part of where we underestimated children, is that we - because we were doing things like asking them to give linguistic responses to things like how many numbers are there, that's a kind of different ability than the ability to, say, reason with numbers or put numbers together.

So there's some lovely experiments that show that, you know, if you put one thing into a box, and then you put two more things into a box, one at a time, with 9-month-olds, and if they could then crawl over and find that there are actually four things in the box, there's no things in the box, they're really surprised. So that means even though they don't have words for those numbers yet, they're starting to understand the idea of numbers.

Now, the other thing is they start out with these very small sets of numbers, and it's only gradually, as they learn number words, that they start to be able to deal with larger problems, like problems like - with numbers like eight or 10.

So they understand something about numbers and can reason with them to begin with, but it's not linguistic, and it's for these small sets of numbers rather than the kind of large numbers that we have to learn about at school.

MIKE: They can't tell sets are the same sets. So if I put eight coins on the floor, and they count to eight, they know that's eight coins or whatever they think it is. They can't say that those matchsticks are the same set as the coins, and that's an interesting thing. Please try my experiment.

CONAN: All right, Mike, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it. It's interesting. You were talking about, well, concepts of numbers and facility for language and other things, certainly recognition and the way they look at the world. But your book is entitled "The Philosophical Baby." What do you mean by philosophical? Do you mean quantities of right and wrong, moral quantities?

Prof. GOPNIK: Well, the book title says two things. One thing is that the babies themselves are trying to solve some of the big philosophical questions that philosophers have solved - for instance, figuring out how other people work, but also things like figuring out how right or wrong works, figuring out moral rules. And this is another place where we used to think that babies and young children were amoral.

Some people argued they didn't really have a moral sense until they were adolescents. And we started to discover that even very young babies already have a sense of empathy. They're already tuned into what other people are feeling.

So to go back to the story about the guitar, babies can sense, for instance, oh, this is something that Dad thinks is really important and wonderful. That means it must be - I must - it must be wonderful for me, too. And by the time they're 18 months old, babies are already being altruistic.

They'll crawl across the room on cushions - there's a nice new study that shows this - to, you know, help somebody pick up a pen that they've dropped. And by the time they're 3, babies or young children already can distinguish between things that are intrinsically moral, like they'll say it would be wrong to hit someone, no matter what, even if the teacher said it was OK, and things that are just social conventions, like, well, it would be - it's wrong to drop your clothes on the ground, but if everybody said it was OK, it wouldn't be so bad.

CONAN: It wouldn't be the end of the world. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Keri(ph), Keri with us from Dartmouth in Massachusetts.

KERI (Caller): Hi. I had a question for Dr. Gopnik. With all of the emphasis lately on adding academics to kindergarten and even preschool, how does that interact with your research about this idea of lantern knowledge with young children?

Prof. GOPNIK: Right. Well, one of the things that I think is really important to say, when we say how much learning these children are doing early on - it's very tempting, I think, for parents and even for governments to say oh, OK, we'd better get them into school early. But one of the points is the kind of learning they're doing is very different from the kind of learning that typically happens in school. And many of the things that they're learning about most profoundly are things like how other people's minds and emotions work, which are very different from the kinds of things that go on in school.

We know, also, that the way that children are learning is through observation and imitation and experimentation. They're learning by looking at other people and playing around with the world around them.

So I think it would be a terrible shame if we took away things like pretend corners, which we know are really important for children's learning about other people, and insisted that they sit down and do reading drills instead.

KERI: There was this article in the Boston Globe last - Boston Globe Magazine last Sunday that was talking about the new kindergarten. And they were saying in some kindergartens, children have 90 minutes of language arts and 60 minutes of math. And I'm a parent. I'm a parent of a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old. And that is a concern for me. But I also understand, how do you then help children who do come into kindergarten, or even preschool, so far behind their peers?

You know, I understand that - the push to have academics and to help these children who come in who are behind. But if that's not the way to do it, and it's - your intuition, my intuition tells me it's not the way to do it, to have 60 minutes of math worksheets. How do you help children who enter the school system really far behind? You know, because they haven't had the experiences, or they haven't been in a very language-rich home, or what do you do for them?

Prof. GOPNIK: Right. Well, I think one of the things that we can do is to have early childhood education programs that will help children to have those kinds of experiences that we know are important for them. We have lots of evidence that putting investments in early childhood education, even evidence from very hard-nosed economists, is one of the very best investments that the society can possibly make. And yet we still don't have public support for things like preschools.

So I think one thing is to start out by giving all children the kinds of rich, spontaneous experiences. And I think it's important to say that you can teach a lot of things that are important for academics, like language skills. Something like reading depends a lot on just having people around you who talk to you and read you books, more than sitting down and, say, doing a reading drill when you're 3 or 4 years old. So we need to be able to give all young children the experiences they need to be able to learn so much.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Keri.

KERI: Thank you.

CONAN: Again, we're talking with Alison Gopnik. Her book is "The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

And here's an email related to that last call, this from Sarah in Louisiana. I was wondering if your guest had ever done any research on the Suzuki method of teaching music to 3-year-olds, stating that was the best time to get a child to learn music.

Prof. GOPNIK: Well, I haven't done research specifically on Suzuki. But there is a lot of research that suggests that babies are tuned into music and rhythm from a very early age - maybe even from literally, the time they're born. And infants already, for instance, can kind of sense whether a musical phrase ends the way that it should - that make - in a way that makes sense. And babies bounce and play and hum and dance from the time they're very early. Someone asked recently: What kind of music do they like? And I said, they like a song that you can dance to. But don't we all?

CONAN: Let's go next to Barbara, Barbara with us from Corvallis, Oregon.

BARBARA (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

BARBARA: I'm thinking that your description of the child's brain sounds a lot like an ADD brain, or ADHD brain. And I wonder if you've made that comparison and know what the implications might be for educating ADD kids or how we deal with ADD.

Prof. GOPNIK: Yeah. That's a really interesting question, and I think we haven't done very much research on it. I think it's pretty clear that there's a lot of variance among people in how good they are at this kind of focused attention versus this more wide-ranging, multitasking attention. And I think it's fair to say that part of why ADD becomes a problem and a syndrome and a disease is because we're in a culture that really demands focused attention, at least older - further on in life.

So it's a really interesting question about, how do we deal with the fact that there's this natural variance in the ways that people pay attention, and still enable children to do the things that they need to do to get along in our particular culture.

BARBARA: Well, it seems like when you're speaking about how well babies are learning and what - and how capable they are because of these kinds of brains, that that might have some implications about how we can maybe educate ADD kids differently. Does that…

Prof. GOPNIK: Mm-hmm. I think it does. Although again, it has to be said that ADD is a very, very variable syndrome with lots of different, complicated things going on. And I think, as with all those things, there probably isn't some, you know, simple, magic-bullet answer. But I think lots of people think that ADD is related to the fact that we put such tremendous demands of focused attention on children in school.

CONAN: Barbara, thank you. And here's a related question from Rachel: When do kids go from learning, open to all and unable to block out, to organizing, able to block out what we want? It seems to me adulthood is delayed compared to 50 to a hundred years ago, when kids took responsibility at younger ages. Would we be hurting learning ability to demand that kids take responsibility earlier?

Prof. GOPNIK: Well, I think the evidence is pretty clear that there's a big shift about, you know, 5 or 6 years old. So that's when we send children to school, but we've only been doing that for about a hundred years. But in almost all cultures, children start behaving differently and being treated differently when they're 6 or 7 years old. And what seems to happen is that that's the point at which children become apprentices to the adult culture. That's when they stop just being open to everything and start learning - here's the specific discipline skills that you're going to need as an adult. And I think throughout life, even for adults, there's a kind of trade-off between flexibility and what neuroscientists call plasticity, openness to experience, and then that really important discipline and focus that we really do need as adults.

And I think the secret of education for older children - for, say, 6 and 7n-year-olds up to adulthood - is to try and find a balance so that children can go back and forth between the responsible, disciplined kind of way of being in the world, and still keep some of that flexibility and openness - something I think is important for us even as grown-ups.

CONAN: When is it that when we're grown-ups - and I'm afraid we just have a few seconds left - but when is it, as grown-ups, that we use that childlike ability, that lantern intelligence?

Prof. GOPNIK: Well, part of calling the book "The Philosophical Baby" is that I think babies have philosophical lessons even for grown-ups. And if you think about things like going to an exotic, strange place, or doing certain kinds of meditation, those are times when you're like a baby. Everything around you is fresh and open and new. And those are good ways of experiencing some of that childlike wonder, even if it means that you also do wake up at 3 o'clock in the morning crying.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Alison Gopnik, thank you so much for your time today.

Prof. GOPNIK: Thank you so much for having me.

CONAN: And again, the book is "The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life." Alison Gopnik joined us from a studio at the University of California at Berkeley, where she is a professor of psychology.

Coming up, new charges in Chile's Dirty War, dating back more than 30 years. Can sometimes very serious crimes be forgiven in the interests of reconciliation? What is the balance with justice?

Stay with us. Ariel Dorfman will join us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Excerpt: 'The Philosophical Baby'

Cover of 'The Philosophical Baby'
The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life
By Alison Gopnik
Hardcover, 304 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List price: $25

Ultimately, the new scientific explanations of childhood are rooted in evolutionary theory. But studying children leads to a very different picture of how evolution shapes our lives than the traditional picture of "evolutionary psychology." Some psychologists and philosophers argue that most of what is significant about human nature is determined by our genes — an innate hardwired system that makes us who we are. We're endowed with a set of fixed and distinct abilities, designed to suit the needs of our prehistoric ancestors 200,000 years ago in the Pleistocene. Not surprisingly, this view discounts the importance of childhood. The picture is that a "good enough" childhood environment may be necessary to let the innate aspects of human nature unfold. But beyond that, childhood won't have much influence because most of what is important about human nature in general, and individual character in particular, is in place at birth.

But this view doesn't capture our lives as we actually live them and as they change and develop over time. We at least feel as if we actively create our lives, changing our world and our selves. This view also can't explain the radical historical changes in human life. If our nature is determined by our genes, you would think that we would be the same now as we were in the Pleistocene. The puzzling fact about human beings is that our capacity for change, both in our own lives and through history, is the most distinctive and unchanging thing about us. Is there a way of explaining this flexibility and creativity, this ability to alter our individual and collective fate, without resorting to mysticism?

The answer, unexpectedly, comes from very young children — and it leads to a very different kind of evolutionary psychology. The great evolutionary advantage of human beings is their ability to escape from the constraints of evolution. We can learn about our environment, we can imagine different environments, and we19 can turn those imagined environments into reality. And as an intensely social species, other people are the most important part of our environment. So we are particularly likely to learn about people and to use that knowledge to change the way other people behave, and the way we behave ourselves. The result is that human beings, as a central part of their evolutionary endowment, and as the deepest part of their human nature, are engaged in a constant cycle of change. We change our surroundings and our surroundings change us. We alter other people's behavior, their behavior alters ours.

We begin with the capacity to learn more effectively and more flexibly about our environment than any other species. This knowledge lets us imagine new environments, even radically new environments, and act to change the existing ones. Then we can learn about the unexpected features of the new environment that we have created, and so change that environment once again and so on. What neuroscientists call plasticity — the ability to change in the light of experience — is the key to human nature at every level from brains to minds to societies.

Learning is a key part of the process, but the human capacity for change goes beyond just learning. Learning is about the way the world changes our mind, but our minds can also change the world. Developing a new theory about the world allows us to imagine other ways the world might be. Understanding other people and ourselves lets us imagine new ways of being human. At the same time, to change our world, our selves, and our society we have to think about what we ought to be like, as well as what we actually are like. This book is about how children develop minds that change the world.

Psychologists, philosophers, neuroscientists, and computer scientists are beginning to carefully and precisely identify some of the underlying mechanisms that give us this distinctively human capacity for change — the aspects of our nature that allow nurture and culture to take place. We even are starting to develop rigorous mathematical accounts of some of those mechanisms. We'll see that this new research and thinking, much of it done just in the past few years, has given us a new understanding of how the biological computers in our skulls actually produce human freedom and flexibility.

If I look around at the ordinary things in front of me as I write this — the electric lamp, the right-angle-constructed table, the brightly glazed symmetrical ceramic cup, the glowing computer screen — almost nothing resembles anything I would have seen in the Pleistocene. All of these objects were once imaginary — they are things that human beings themselves have created. And I myself, a woman cognitive scientist writing about the philosophy of children, could not have existed in the Pleistocene either. I am also a creation of the human imagination, and so are you. The very fact of childhood — our long protected period of immaturity — plays a crucial role in this human ability to change the world and ourselves. Children aren't just defective adults, primitive grown-ups gradually attaining our perfection and complexity. Instead, children and adults are different forms of Homo sapiens. They have very different, though equally complex and powerful, minds, brains, and forms of consciousness, designed to serve different evolutionary functions. Human development is more like metamorphosis, like caterpillars becoming butterflies, than like simple growth — though it may seem that children are the vibrant, wandering butterflies who transform into caterpillars inching along the grown-up path.

Excerpted from The Philosophical Baby, by Alison Gopnik, published August 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright 2009 by Alison Gopnik. All rights reserved.

Books Featured In This Story

The Philosophical Baby
The Philosophical Baby

What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life

by Alison Gopnik

Hardcover, 288 pages | purchase

close

Purchase Featured Books

  • The Philosophical Baby
  • What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life
  • Alison Gopnik

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: