You’ve probably heard the term “Baby Brain” before, right?
It’s usually a derogatory way of describing a pregnant woman who is too distracted with the baby developing in her belly to think or speak seriously on any given topic.
But if you mention “Baby Brain” to Alison Gopnik, the professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley, you’re sure to hear a different definition for the term.
Alison Gopnik has spent decades now researching Baby’s brains and learning that there is far more going on in the crib then we have ever given the tiny humans credit for.
We reached Professor Gopnik at her office to get her take on the real “Baby Brain” and to help first time parents get inside the head’s of their babies.
You have spent years researching babies’ brains and learning that there’s far more going on in there than we ever gave babies credit for. I’d like to ask you about the first year of life in the world of the baby. In your years of research, what has changed in the way that we look at, or understand, babies?
Thirty years ago, people thought babies and young children were egocentric, irrational, and illogical, that they lived in a blooming, buzzing confusion, and that their minds were a blank slate. In the last 30 years, we have discovered that, if anything, just the opposite of this is true – that even the very youngest babies both know more and learn more than we ever would have thought possible.
So what is it like to be a baby?
For a long time, philosophers, psychologists, and psychiatrists who study babies would have said that being a baby was not much of anything – that there wasn’t much consciousness there for babies and young children. And there was even a time when people did operations with very little anesthesia on newborns because they felt that they weren’t conscious.
What we’ve discovered, however, is that there are some respects in which babies and young children may actually be more conscious than adults. As adults, we are vividly conscious of the particular things we’re paying attention to, but what happens is that we shut out the other things going on around us. Babies and young children don’t seem to shut things out the same way that we do. We say that children are bad at paying attention, but what they’re actually bad at is not paying attention. They are paying attention to, and thus getting information from, everything going on around them. If you think about the kind of attention we have as grown-ups as a spotlight that puts light on a particular part of the world, then the kind of attention we have as babies is more of a lantern that spreads out and illuminates a much larger space.
One of your most widely known books is called The Scientist in the Crib. How is a baby a scientist?
One of the big discoveries that we’ve made in the last 30 years is that young children learn as much as they do about the world by unconsciously using some of the very same techniques that scientists use – making statistical analyses of data, doing experiments, etc. – except, of course, that when babies do experiments, we call it “playing around” or “getting into everything.” Scientists can get the best information about what’s going on in the world by using something called Bayesian inference, which involves combining common-sense knowledge with evidence gleaned from observation. What we’ve discovered is that babies and young children are unconsciously doing the same kind of thing.
Your most recent book is called The Philosophical Baby. How is a baby a philosopher?
Babies are learning about the way the physical things in the world work, but they are also trying to solve the same kinds of problems that philosophers have tried to solve, like figuring out what’s going on in the mind of another person. That’s what philosophers have called the “other minds problem,” but it turns out that it is an important problem for babies as well.
There has been a lot of talk in the news recently about how some Apple and Google top executives send their children to the Waldorf School, which doesn’t allow computers. What is your take on the influence of computers and television on the brain’s development?
The truth is that we don’t know because we haven’t done the studies, and it’s probably too soon to tell. One thing that we do know is that babies are designed to learn very well – indeed, to learn best – from real live human beings. Passive activities like watching television or Baby Einstein tapes certainly don’t seem to help babies any. If anything, they may have negative effects – but they certainly don’t have any positive effects.
On the other hand, I think it’s always been true that we learn about the technologies that are important to us in our culture. By the time children are preschoolers they’re already beginning to be sensitive to the fact that well, “Wait a minute, these computers are the things that everyone around me is using.” And I think children might be especially good at learning about computers because they’re interactive.
I think the most important thing, especially for very young children, is to find out what the people around them are like, and to interact with real live people. On the other hand, I’m not sure it does any harm for children (certainly by the time they’re in school) to start interacting with some of these devices that are actually going to be incredibly important for them in adult life.
I recently heard about an anthropologist who was working with a group of people in Latin America who were still basically hunter-gatherers, and he said, “You know, those four-year-olds know how to use a machete,” which seems a little weird to us. We wouldn’t let our four-year-olds use machetes. But, when a machete’s a really important technology for a society, four-year-olds learn how to use it. Similarly, four-year-olds could quite possibly figure out how to use computers, but it is still clear that what’s really important is for them to have real live people interacting with them.
The truth is, we just don’t know yet what the effects of computers are going to be.
One last question: In your view, what is one of the greatest gifts that babies can give to adults?
I mentioned before that babies seem to have this broad lantern of attention. They really seem to be designed to spend most of their time learning. They’re very wide open to a lot of things in the world around them. We adults are sort of forced by our circumstances to have a much narrower focus of vision. We’re just focused on whatever it is we need to do next, and so forth. But when we’re with babies and young children, we can temporarily get some of that broader vision and openness. One of the things I say is that if you try to go to the corner store for a gallon of milk with a four-year-old, you’ll suddenly realize that this street you’re completely used to, that has sort of become invisible to you, is suddenly full of all of these fantastic, wonderful, exciting things. And it may take you four times as long to get to the store, but you realize that it’s four times as rich an experience.
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