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Thomas Nagel famously asked, “What is it like to be a bat?” That question has become a staple of Philosophy 101 courses, but we might be better served asking a more basic one: What is it like to be a baby? Though all of us experience life as a baby firsthand, we’ve long held misconceptions about what babies are capable of thinking, feeling, and understanding. Only recently have we overturned dominant theories of development in which very young children were thought to be barely conscious at all.
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In The Philosophical Baby developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik compiles the latest in her field’s research to paint a new picture of our inner lives at inception — one in which we are, in some ways, more conscious than adults. Gopnik spoke with Seed’s Evan Lerner about how babies and young children learn from us and what we can learn from them.
Seed: How does a better understanding of what’s going on in the minds of babies help us as adults?
Alison Gopnik: One of the things we discovered is that imagination, which we often think of as a special adult ability, is actually in place in very young children, as early as 18 months old. That ability is very closely related to children’s ability to figure out how the world works. Imagination isn’t just something we develop for our amusement; it seems to be something innate and connected to how we understand the causal structure of the real world. In fact, the new computational model of development we’ve created — using what computer scientists call Bayesian networks — shows systematically how understanding causation lets you imagine new possibilities. If children are computing in this way, then we’d expect imagination and learning to go hand in hand.
Seed: You describe children as being “useless on purpose.” What do you mean by that?
AG: It’s related to one of the basic things that came out of our research: Why do children exist at all? It doesn’t make tremendous evolutionary sense to have these creatures that can’t even keep themselves alive and require an enormous investment of time on the part of adults. That period of dependence is longer for us than it is for any other species, and historically that period has become longer and longer.
The evolutionary answer seems to be that there is a tradeoff between the ability to learn and imagine — which is our great evolutionary advantage as a species — and our ability to apply what we’ve learned and put it to use. So one of the ideas in the book is that children are like the R&D department of the human species. They’re the ones who are always learning about the world. But if you’re always learning, imagining, and finding out, you need a kind of freedom that you don’t have if you’re actually making things happen in the world. And when you’re making things happen, it helps if those actions are based on all of the things you have learned and imagined. The way that evolution seems to have solved this problem is by giving us this period of childhood where we don’t have to do anything, where we are completely useless. We’re free to explore the physical world, as well as possible worlds through imaginative play. And when we’re adults, we can use that information to actually change the world.
Seed: You think Freud’s and Piaget’s conceptions of young children’s theory of mind are wrong. What do we know that they didn’t?
AG: Both Piaget and Freud thought that the reason children produced so much fantastic, unreal play was that they couldn’t tell the difference between imagination and reality. But a lot of the more recent work in children’s theory of mind has shown quite the contrary. Children have a very good idea of how to distinguish between fantasies and realities. It’s just they are equally interested in exploring both. The picture we used to have of children was that they spent all of this time doing pretend play because they had these very limited minds, but in fact what we’ve now discovered is that children have more powerful learning abilities than we do as adults. A lot of their characteristic traits, like their pretend play, are signs of how powerful their imaginative abilities are.
Seed: So is this just a matter of a changing frame of reference, where we now value imagination more?
AG: Well, the science has changed, too. For Freud and Piaget, it was a perfectly good hypothesis. If you just looked at young children and babies, they just did not seem very smart. We have new techniques we use to get more subtle measurements of what’s going on in children’s minds, and that’s the thing that has overturned that earlier view. When we take more than a superficial look at what children are doing, it turns out that they both know much more and learn much more than we ever thought before.
Seed: What are these techniques? How can we interrogate the minds of people who can’t yet fully communicate?
AG: Children are not very good at spontaneously telling you what they are thinking. With adults, we give them a questionnaire and have them give us answers. That doesn’t work for babies, who can’t talk, and for young children, who can only give a kind of stream-of-consciousness response. So one thing is to look at what they do rather than what they say. This works if you give them very focused questions with very simple answers. Rather than ask a child to explain how a toy machine works, we’ll ask, “Do you think this block or that block will make the machine go?”
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