What Do Babies Think?

What Do Babies Think?

“Tiny babies are already doing a lot of the kinds of thinking and learning that we think of as being the learning of very sophisticated scientists.”  — Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley and author of The Philosophical Baby, The Scientist in the Crib and other influential books on cognitive development.

The above link offers two amazing pieces of media, involving Alison Gopnik (quoted above), which tell us that babies are no longer to be thought of as illogical, irrational, and ego-centric beings (as was concluded 30 years ago by scientists and philosophers), but that they are to be thought of as “the most brilliant scientists.”  The link provides access to an 18-1/2 minute video of Gopnik’s TEDTalk in 2011, in which she shares some of her research exploring the sophisticated intelligence-gathering and decision-making that babies do when they play, and a 9-1/2 minute interview with Gopnik on the NPR TED Radio Hour from May 3, 2013.  

In the TEDTalk video, Gopnik reveals how babies and young children are constantly observing, experimenting and understanding their world through exploratory play and by “getting into everything.”  She reports on her research which found that babies as young as 15 months of age are aware of what others like, even if it is different from what they like, but will only give to others what they themselves like, versus giving them what they know the other person likes.  However, by 18 months old, babies have developed an altruistic sense that allows them to take into account the perspective and preferences of another person, in way that Gopnik describes as “beyond empathy,”  in order to give others their preference.  She shows a video of a 4-year old who tests 5 hypotheses in 2 minutes in order to figure out why some blocks light up and others don’t.  She emphasizes in her lecture that childhood lasts so long in humans because we are smarter than any other animal creature and that children need to be protected during their long childhood and their long period of learning about the world.  Gopnik shares with the audience how her 23-year old son still needs “worms” to be dropped into his mouth, as a mother bird would do for a baby bird, and that childhood lasts much longer than we think or would like to admit.  The issue is that the research is there to prove it.  Whether we choose to pay attention to it or not is a separate issue.

Gopnik beautifully describes the difference in consciousness between a young child and an adult. She tells us that babies are much more conscious than adults about the world around them.  She describes adults as having a “spotlight of consciousness,” which results in focused and purpose-driven attention.  The spotlight shines on whatever it is an adult is paying attention to, and everything else that isn’t in the spotlight “goes dark.”  But, she says the consciousness of babies and young children is like a “lantern” because the “inhibitory parts of a child’s brain haven’t turned on yet,” and that that is exactly “the kind of attention we want for something designed to learn.”  

She informs us that when we as adults fall in love with someone new or visit a city for the first time, we experience an expansion of consciousness that babies experience every day all day  as they learn.  She reminds us that this expansion of consciousness can feel similar to when we adults drink coffee.  According to Gopnik, being a baby is like what being in love with someone new while visiting Paris for the first time after having had 3 cups of espresso would be like for a grown-up.  She encourages us to think of babyhood and childhood as an amazing time of open-mindedness, open learning, creativity and innovation that grown-ups should learn to operate on more often.

In the NPR Radio Hour piece, Gopnik discusses much of the same that we hear in her TEDTalk.  She emphasizes that we’re in the midst of a scientific revolution in terms of what we know about how babies think and how they learn about the world around them.  By way of a description of her 15-month old grandchild, we get a clear picture of the way babies observe, experiment, explore, and come to grips with the world around them.  

This is a huge “aside” for my purpose here, which was to share Gopnik’s findings.  But after hearing about her research and how she has come to think of babies and children (even the ones that are 23 years old!), I can’t help thinking about the way we medicate children as young as 7 years old and long into adolescence by way of ADD/ADHD medicine in order to shrink their consciousness to adult levels.  In the last 20 or so years, based on research that saw children as defective adults, illogical, irrational and ego-centric, the number of children diagnosed with attention-deficit disorders has increased astoundingly.  The research told us then that children don’t have the “spotlight of consciousness” in order to learn successfully as adults do, so pharmaceutical companies found a solution that would give children the focused and purpose-driven attention that adults operate on to be successful in their world.  

The problem is, childhood, for however long it lasts for any particular child, is not about laser- focused attention.  Gopnik tells us it’s about expansion of consciousness, experimenting, and exploring.  It’s about open-mindedness, open learning, creativity and innovation.  It’s not about paying attention to the task that’s in front of you (e.g., reading the words on a page in a book, gluing a bead on paper, completing a worksheet, studying for a test, etc.), but about hypothesizing and experimenting in order to learn.  This is the kind of attention Gopnik tells us is necessary for someone (i.e., a child) designed to learn.

Perhaps parents, educators, physicians, pharmacists and others need to think less about recommending a child for an attention-deficit disorder assessment and subsequent prescriptions for medicine and more about allowing children to expand their thinking for more successful learning in the academic setting and in the real world.  Perhaps students’ test scores and school performance, and the United States’ position in the global economy, would greatly improve, or at least return to what they were prior to the ADD/ADHD epidemic in the United States.  At the very least, it’s yet another aspect of “growing” the children of the United States to be the best that they can be, since they are, indeed, our future.  Alongside factors like race, gender, family background and socio-econmic levels and other factors, we should at least carefully examine how babies and children are biologically designed to learn and cease doing anything that prevents them from doing what they are already built to do for great success in their world.


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