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.

The Philosophical Baby by Alison Gopnik.

What's going on inside a baby's bulbous head? We ask the same question about our pets, but the frustrating thing about babies is that we once knew: We all once looked out at the world through those adorably large baby eyes.

In The Philosophical Baby, Alison Gopnik writes that developmental psychologist John Flavell once told her that he would give up all his degrees and honors for just five minutes in the head of a 2-year-old. I would give up a month of my life for those five minutes—and two months for five minutes as an infant.

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In the absence of magic, we are left with the imperfect tools of developmental psychology—observation and experiment, hypothesis and guesswork. The science of baby consciousness is a central topic of Gopnik's new book. One of the most prominent researchers in the field, Gopnik is also one of the finest writers, with a special gift for relating scientific research to the questions that parents and others most want answered. This is where to go if you want to get into the head of a baby.

Almost nobody believes anymore that infants are insensate blobs. It seems both mad and evil to deny experience and feeling to a laughing gurgling creature. Still, there has to be some point in development when consciousness isn't present, and though it is logically possible that it just switches on in a single instant—boom, the fetus or embryo goes from a parsnip to a person—it fits better with what we know about both development and consciousness that it emerges gradually. Since there is nothing neurologically special about the moment of leaving the uterus, this process most likely continues after birth. Perhaps babies are less conscious than we are or have some features of consciousness but not others. William James, for instance, famously claimed that the mental life of a baby is "one great blooming buzzing confusion."

Gopnik's own view is a clever and counterintuitive twist on James. She argues that babies aremore conscious than adults. Her conclusion is based on the study of how attention and inhibition—the capacity to block out distractions—evolve over the course of development. Adult attention is willful and endogenous. Although it can be captured by external events—we will turn if we hear a loud noise—we also have control over what to think about and what to attend to. By sheer will, we can choose to focus on our left foot, then think about what we had for breakfast, then focus on ... whatever we want. Adults are also blessed, to varying degrees, with the power to ignore distractions, both external and internal, and to stay focused on a single task.

This is all harder for babies and young children. They are largely at the mercy of the environment. Simple experiments demonstrate that babies are, for the most part, trapped in the here and now, a conclusion supported by the finding that the part of the brain responsible for inhibition and control, the prefrontal cortex, is among the last to develop. Gopnik uses the example of an adult being dumped into the middle of a foreign city, knowing nothing about what's going on, with no goals and plans, constantly turning to see new things, and struggling to make sense of it all. This is what it's like to be a baby—only more so, since even the most stressed adult has countless ways of controlling attention: We can look forward to lunch, imagine how we would describe this trip to friends, and so on. The baby just is. It sounds exhausting, which might explain why infants spend so much of their time sleeping or (like some travelers) fussing.

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