At different points in history, baby brains have been described as blank slates, balls of clay, and information sponges—and the debate about which is closer to the mark has smoldered for centuries. Today, the debate is more refined, though no less dynamic, and percolates amidst a commercial sea of products claiming to catalyze genius in junior’s noggin. Finding grains of truth in this tsunami of misdirection might be one of the most exhausting things already exhausted new parents try to do. Baby is, after all, worth the effort.
Thankfully, incisive minds are on the case, and Alison Gopnik is a pioneer in the pack. Her earlier book, Scientist in the Crib, was a refreshing change from the deluge of speculative “how to” baby books for parents, aiming instead to tell us what science has actually uncovered about the minds of children. Her latest book, The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love and the Meaning of Life, takes the discussion to a higher level, challenging long-held assumptions about the quasi-consciousness of the infant brain, and showing that a better understanding of how babies think provides richer knowledge of the ongoings in our heads. She recently spent some time discussing her new book with Neuronarrative.
NN: When I saw the title of your new book, I instantly thought of a baby playing with toys in a similar way that a philosopher plays with ideas. Is that the sort of image you had in mind when you started writing?
Gopnik: Well, partly that, but mostly the thought was that the philosopher should be paying more attention to the babies. Childhood is a significant and profound part of life for all of us but it hardly appeared in 2500 years of philosophy. Fortunately the scientific discoveries of the past thirty years have started to change that,
You discuss the different sorts of intelligence that babies and adults possess. Briefly, what characterizes each and how do they differ?
The idea is that babies explore, and adults exploit. I argue that the very purpose of childhood is to give us a long protected period in which we can explore the world without having to act on it. Babies are designed to learn as much as they can about the world. Adults are designed to take what they’ve learned and act on it swiftly and efficiently.
A lot of recent research has been devoted to plasticity in the adult brain, suggesting that the brain can change in significant ways even in life’s later stages. What distinguishes that sort of plasticity from what we see in the young brain?
The main difference is that adult plasticity seems to be much more “top-down.” It’s the result of intentional processes of attention and training. It also seems to be balanced by inhibitory processes that actually reduce plasticity in other parts of the brain. Young brains seem much more generally plastic and changes in those brains are driven more by bottom-up experience. In fact, you might say that as adults when we pay attention to something we are really intentionally regressing a small part of our brain to its infant state, while we hold the rest constant.
You said in a recent New York Times op-ed piece that “our mature brain seems to be programmed by our childhood experiences—we plan based on what we’ve learned as children.” Some will see in that statement a hint of biological determinism. Can you elaborate on what you mean by “programmed” in this sense?
The thought is anti-deterministic, I think, in that it says that what we learn as children shapes what we can do as adults – it’s not all genetic. But, of course, we continue to be able to learn as adults, we just don’t do it as generally or easily or spontaneously. In fact, much of my recent work has been informed by Bayesian statistical ideas. And from that perspective it makes a lot of sense to be less willing to give up ideas when they’ve been very strongly confirmed by lots of prior experience. But I think science shows that everything is up for revision, in principle, even as adults
What’s your impression of the vast “make your baby smarter” industry that’s sprung up in the last couple of decades? Can we make our babies smarter, or are we just making the creators of these products richer?
I understand where it comes from. It’s probably the first time in history when most people who have children haven’t had much experience with children before – and they’re understandably anxious. But I do think it’s a sad irony that we spend billions on these basically useless products, and very little to support the caregivers – parents and preschool teachers and babysitters who actually make a real difference to how children grow up.
On a related note, what’s your advice to parents of babies and young children who want their kids to intellectually and imaginatively be all they can be?
I’m afraid this is a case where the psychological wisdom really is pretty banal – talk to your children, read to them, pay attention to them—but not too much. Let them watch you. Give them a rich environment to learn in, with the understanding that from an evolutionary point of view the ideally rich learning environment for babies probably involved large amounts of mud, relatives and livestock. Unfortunately, second cousins once removed, jolly great uncles and friendly pigs are in short supply nowadays. But a sandbox, friends and babysitters, and a bean plant and a goldfish will do very well. And though it’s banal, it’s a lot more than many parents can manage.