Alison Gopnik's The Philosophical Baby.

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 10 2009 9:35 AM

What's Inside a Big Baby Head?

New research brings surprising revelations.

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For Gopnik, this lack of inhibition and control is a gift. It makes babies and children ideally suited for the task of acquiring information about physical and social reality. When it comes to imagination and learning, their openness to experience makes them "superadults"—not just smart but smarter than we are. She's particularly interested in the power to think about alternate realities, other possible worlds. In several fascinating chapters, she explores how this power is manifested in children's play and in their creation of imaginary companions, plausibly arguing that the capacity to reason about worlds that do not exist is crucial to children's rapid learning about everything from cause-and-effect relationships to human behavior. Gopnik suggests that their neural immaturity gives them greater imaginative powers than adults have: She proclaims, "Children are the R&D department of the human species—the blue-sky guys, the brainstormers. Adults are production and marketing. They [children] think up a million new ideas, mostly useless, and we take the three or four good one and make them real."

This is romantic and optimistic, but it is true? Well, not literally: Intellectual and cultural progress does not consist of taking the ideas of children and making them real, and there's no obvious sense in which children are better at thinking up new things than adults. Nor is there any reason to think that they should be. To some extent, a wandering mind is indeed a good thing. You can escape from a rut, make intuitive leaps. But for the most part, the ingredients of creative accomplishment are more prosaic—including the accumulation of knowledge, hours and hours of focused practice, and sustained attention. Imagination tends to be truly useful if accompanied by the power of mental control—if the worlds in one's head can be purposefully manipulated and distinguished from the real one outside it. Babies probably can't do this; young children can but with occasional difficulty. Meanwhile, we adults immerse ourselves in the rich and complex worlds of novels, television, and movies and create our own worlds through daydreams and fantasy. The unromantic truth may be that adults are the best pretenders of all, and that children would be better off if the prefrontal cortex matured more quickly.

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In fact, there is evidence that before that maturation takes place, children may well avail themselves of something as amazing as the openness Gopnik celebrates: hard-wired systems of understanding that help give structure to an otherwise overwhelming experience of the world. One focus of recent research has been on "naive physics": Studies have shown that babies know that objects continue to exist once out of sight and that those objects are solid and cohesive and subject to gravity. And that's not all: Babies understand cause-and-effect relationships. They can figure out simple addition and subtraction.

There has also been considerable focus in recent years on babies' and toddlers' understanding of other people—"naive psychology" or "theory of mind." For instance, a now classic set of studies found that 15-month-olds know enough about other people to make sense of their false beliefs. Some more recent studies  I've done in collaboration with Kiley Hamlin and Karen Wynn at Yale have found that 6-month-olds, after witnessing people interact with one another, are capable of subtle social evaluation; they prefer to interact with whoever helped the other person achieve his goals than with the person who thwarted the other's goals.

In her zeal to emphasize learning, Gopnik downplays the role of these unlearned systems. For her, theories that emphasize our genetic endowment are incompatible with the fact that humans, as societies and individuals, have the capacity for change. But this is a false dichotomy. Empty heads, cognitive science has taught us, learn nothing. The powerful cultural and personal flexibility of our species is owed at least in part to our starting off so well-informed; we are good learners because we know what to pay attention to and what questions are the right ones to ask. As Gopnik herself points out in her discussion of possible worlds, "knowledge is actually what gives imagination its power, what makes creativity possible."

Nobody knows how much of what babies understand is conscious. But these findings suggest that William James was wrong that the mental life of a baby is a chaotic mess, and they help explain why Gopnik is right to be awed at an infant's creative prowess. Perhaps looking out through big baby eyes—if we could—would not be as revelatory experience as many imagine. We might see a world inhabited by objects and people, a world infused with causation, agency, and morality—a world that would surprise us not by its freshness but by its familiarity.

Paul Bloom is the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University.