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What We Can Learn From Babies

Audio

Aired 9/24/09

What can we learn from babies? New scientific research is showing that babies and young children can help us understand how we learn about love, truth and life.

Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, spoke with us about her latest book shown here, "The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love and the Meaning of Life."
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Above: Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, spoke with us about her latest book shown here, "The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love and the Meaning of Life."

Alison Gopnik will speak today, Thursday, September 24, 2009, at 4 p.m. at the San Diego Natural History Museum as part of their Body Worlds Exhibit.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. We all acknowledge that childhood is a magical time. In fact, most of us use that expression to fill in the gaps for what we don't know about baby brains. For instance, why does an infant stare so long at a face, why does a baby make so many different kinds of noises, and why do young children develop their own worlds of make-believe? For quite some time, it's been thought that very young children aren't really fully conscious. My guest, psychologist Alison Gopnik, disagrees. She is known for her work studying the mental development of baby brains, and she says she now believes that babies and young children are actually more conscious, more vividly aware of their external worlds and internal life than adults are. Alison Gopnik is professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of "The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind," and her latest book is "The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love and the Meaning of Life." And, Alison, welcome to These Days.

ALISON GOPNIK (Professor of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley): Well, glad to be here in San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: Now I’d like to invite our audience to join the conversation. What does your baby or toddler do that mystifies you? Do you see signs that your young child is trying to make sense of the world? Give us a call. The number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. You know, Alison, I’m interested in the title of your latest book, “The Philosophical Baby,” what does that mean?

GOPNIK: Well, it really means two things. One thing is that philosophers, for 2000 years, haven’t paid very much attention to babies. If you looked at the index of the

”Encyclopedia of Philosophy” there were a lot more references to angels than there were to children or babies. And yet when you think about it a little more, you realize that babies are quite profound and puzzling and mysterious, the sort of thing that philosophy might tell you about. And the more recent science of babies that’s emerged in the last 30 years or so has actually started to give us some answers to what are classic philosophical questions. How do we understand about the world around us? What does it mean for us to be conscious? Why do we learn things from fiction and imagination? What is the basis of our morality? Those are all kind of great classic philosophical questions and the new science of babies and young children’s minds can actually give us some answers to them. So the first idea is that by studying babies and young children, we can actually start to get some new answers to old philosophical questions.

CAVANAUGH: For not only the babies but for ourselves.

GOPNIK: Exactly. So actually studying children can tell us a lot about what it means to be human.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I – Do you think children are more conscious that adults? And you say that, and I’m wondering what you mean by that.

GOPNIK: Right, so one of the advances in our understanding of the human mind over the last little while has been that we’re starting to understand more about the basis of consciousness, both in our brains and our minds. What makes us have the special vivid experiences that we have. And that understanding has actually meant that we can start asking a question we could never have asked before, which is what is it like to be a baby? What’s it actually to be inside that little baby head? And we can do that because we can compare children’s minds and brains to adult minds and brains and then we can take what we know about consciousness in adults and try and extrapolate it to children. So what we know about adult brains is that we’re most vividly conscious when we pay attention to something. And as adults, what we do is pay attention to a little part of the world, and when we do that we become very vividly conscious of that part of the world and we sort of shut down everything else. So the metaphor people often give is that attention’s like a spotlight, it illuminates a little part of the world and then keeps the rest dark. And we actually know something about the brain mechanisms that enable us to do this so that when we attend to something a little part of our brain becomes more flexible, it becomes better able to learn, better able to take in information, and other parts of our brain get shut down. They actually get inhibited. We even know something about the brain chemicals that affect this so when we pay attention, we squirt a little bit of brain chemical that sort of activates our brain on one part of our brain and then we squirt these kind of deactivation chemicals on the rest of our brain because we don’t want it to change. Well, when we go and look at babies, what we see is that their attention to the world is very different from adult attention. So instead of just focusing on one thing and weeding out everything else, babies seem to be captivated by anything that’s interesting or informative in the world outside of them. And when we look at their brains we see that they have lots of these chemicals that make our brains do more and they don’t yet have any of these chemicals that inhibit, that keep our brains from functioning, and we know that their brains are actually better at learning, more flexible than adult brains. So if you put all that together, the picture you get is that for babies, instead of attention being this spotlight that we go around the world trying to find things out, it’s more like a lantern. Babies are aware, seem to be aware of, in some sense, of everything that’s going on around them at once.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with psychologist Alison Gopnik. Her new book is called "The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love and the Meaning of Life." We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Does this new understanding or this daunting understanding of how babies’ brains work, does that go against standard notions of how minds develop and how conscious very young children are, infants, toddlers, etcetera?

GOPNIK: Well, you know, I think for many, many years the kind of standard picture of what babies and young children was – were like was that they were, in some sense, kind of defective grownups. They were grownups but missing some of the things that make us the most distinctively grown up. So even great psychologists like Jean Piaget or Sigmund Freud said that babies were egocentric and illogical and irrational, that they couldn’t understand causality, they couldn’t understand the minds of other people, that they were amoral. And, in fact, the research that we’ve done over the past 30 years has shown that far from being defective, in some ways babies’ brains and minds are superior even to adult minds. Babies are very rational. They’re tremendously well-designed to learn about the world. They’re very capable and interested in other people. They have the roots of – beginnings of morality from the time they’re very young so that whole picture has completely changed about how we think about babies. Now part of the reason, I think, why people underestimated babies for so long was because they aren’t very good at doing some of the things that we do well as adults. They’re terrible at planning. They’re terrible at making things happen. They’re awful at actually taking care of themselves. They depend on us to do all that. But when it comes to perceiving and learning and figuring out about the world, babies and young children are the best creatures on the planet. They’re really the research and development department of the human species. They’re the ones that are devoted to learning, and we adults are production and marketing. We take everything that we’ve learned as babies and actually put it to use.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering if you could give us some examples of what’s going on. What is happening, for example, when a baby is zoned on the mother’s face? I mean, just staring at his or her mother’s face.

GOPNIK: Right. Well, again, we know that the way babies’ attention works is that instead of being able to control their attention and say I’m going to look at this thing rather than that, they get captivated by anything that’s teaching them a lot. And one of the things that babies care about the most, it’s most important for babies and for grownups, too, are other people. Not just how other people look but how other people feel and what they think. And from the time they’re very young, babies are already able to figure out from looking at what someone’s face is like or what they do, what’s going on inside of them. So already newborn babies can imitate the facial expressions they see on – in other people. So it’s as if they already have linked – recognize, oh, when you look sad and you feel that way, that’s the same kind of feeling that I have. So when the baby looks at the mom’s face they’re not just seeing a face, they’re seeing a person.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Alison Gopnik. She’s professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and author of "The Philosophical Baby." We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Right now Janet is calling us from Poway. And good morning, Janet. Welcome to These Days.

JANET (Caller, Poway): Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: How can we help you, Janet?

JANET: I have a question about your description of a baby’s attention as a lantern sounds exactly like an older child who has an attention deficit disorder. Is there any link between those two?

GOPNIK: Well, that’s a good question, and you have to say that attention deficit disorder is a very complicated syndrome. It’s not really just one thing, and there’s lots and lots of different things that are going on. But I think it is true that in our particular culture we very much value that very, very focused attention. And I think we have lots of reason to believe that people vary in how focused or unfocused their attention is. So for adults, it is very important to have a kind of focused attention but it’s probably more important for us right now in our culture than it’s ever been before. And part of the reason why you see diagnoses of ADHD, there clearly are some people and some children who are really suffering from a genuine neurological problem but there’s also probably a range of people who just have a different way of attending than lots of other people do, and I think in the past that wasn’t really a problem. If you were a hunter-gatherer, you didn’t need that kind of very narrowly focused attention. One thing that I think is very important to say is that for babies and for young children, three and four year olds, that kind of broad attention and that inability to focus and that sense that they’re not paying attention is that’s how those babies are designed, and I think parents sometimes over-diagnose, over-worry about their children’s attention because children’s attention is just so different from adults.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Niah is calling from Kearny Mesa. Good morning, and welcome to These Days.

NIAH (Caller, Kearny Mesa): Well, I’m very glad to – that you’re taking the call because I had a visit from a baby just the other day. The baby came with her parents. She was fifteen months old.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

NIAH: The young parents, 25 years old, are Russian.

GOPNIK: Umm-hmm.

NIAH: They, of course, speak Russian, and they know English. I think one of them knows English better than the other. And they feel that if they speak Russian to the baby, that’s the way she’s going to be able to continue to know Russian and they are not worried about her learning English. And I do think I agree with that from my limited course that I took in—I can’t even think of the name of the course right now—logistics, I think it was, something like that.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

NIAH: But anyway I understand that children do pick up languages in their – until they’re teenagers. Correct me if I’m wrong, that it’s very easy for humans to pick up languages, one after the other, as a matter of fact.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s get a response on that, Niah.

NIAH: And now can I just finish…

CAVANAUGH: Sure, sure.

NIAH: …another word. And I would like to know how the professor feels about what these people are doing. They’re – I think they’re better than intelligent and I respect their opinion, and I would like a verification.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that. Thanks very much.

GOPNIK: Well, one of the places where we’ve discovered that babies and young children are really amazingly smart is in their ability to pick up languages. And I think this is an interesting one because it’s a case where the science contradicts a lot of people’s intuition. The science, I think, very clearly says that children can pick up multiple languages very easily and spontaneously and can do it much better when they’re young than when they get older. So I think we have a lot of evidence that, for instance, nine month old babies already are sensitive to the sounds of the particular languages around them. And if they hear multiple sounds of languages, they can keep – they can learn the sound systems of all those different languages even before they can talk themselves. So I think all the evidence is that it does nothing but good for babies to be exposed to more than one language. There’s even some evidence that for children who are a little older, there’s real advantages in their understanding of language if they’re bilingual. So sometimes I think adults think, oh, well, you know, one language will interfere with another. All the evidence is exactly in the direction of you and your friends that being exposed to many languages, it does nothing but good and the younger the children are, the better.

CAVANAUGH: I think, too, in Niah’s comments, if I get what she’s saying correctly or what occurred to me, is if children – if very young children, babies, are exposed to a number of different languages, how do they put that all together like all these words go into one category and all those words go into another category.

GOPNIK: Right. Well, children seem to be able to keep track of the fact that the different languages have different rules. And, as I say, we know that babies, from the time they’re literally just months old are already starting to sort out the sounds of different languages, the fact that in Japanese, for instance, you don’t make a distinction between ‘r’ and ‘l’ and in English we don’t make a distinction between different tones but Chinese does. So already, as I say, before they talk, babies are starting to sort that out.

CAVANAUGH: It’s interesting. Now in reading some of the articles that you’ve written, you said that there are many things that you think but you can’t prove. Now I wonder how you develop your theories about how babies learn and what they know.

GOPNIK: Right. Well, one of the reasons why we’ve had such an enormous change in the way we think about babies is because we have new tools and techniques that we can use to get babies to tell us what they know. And part of the reason I think why people used to think that babies were so dumb was because if you try to talk to babies in your grownup language, they don’t look very smart. So we have to figure out how to actually talk the same language that babies and preschoolers are talking. So for babies, for instance, we have to look at what they do, not listen to what they say and, in fact, for preschoolers as well. Very young children aren’t very good at communicating what’s in their heads through what they say. So we use videotape, for example to record what’s a baby looking at? What’s a baby paying attention to? What – Does the baby pay more attention to one event than another event? We can look at babies’ eye movements and we can look at whether, for instance, they decide to give you one toy or another toy. And even with preschoolers, we’ve discovered, for instance, that if you just ask a preschooler to say what they think, what you get is this beautiful stream of consciousness Blake, William Blake, poem but it doesn’t sound like it makes an awful lot of sense.

CAVANAUGH: No.

GOPNIK: But if you actually give them a problem to solve, you give them a toy and say, well, how does this toy work? Should you put this block on or that block on? Then you get very, very rational, sensible, logical answers.

CAVANAUGH: And is this research becoming standard in the field? Are other scientists accepting this?

GOPNIK: Yes. So, in fact, the whole field of development and cognitive development has been one of the most exciting areas of cognitive science now for the last 30 years and particularly the last 10 years or so. So there’s a whole community. I think if you ask most people who actually study this, they’d say, yes, in fact, babies and young children know more than we ever would have thought before. And what we’ve really been discovering just in the last 10 years is that they not just – don’t just know more but they learn more. And we’re starting to discover just how their brains are designed in ways that enable them to learn as much as they do.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Alison Gopnik and we have to take a short break. When we return, we’ll continue to talk about “The Philosophical Baby” and the other research about how babies’ brains work. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, and we will return after a short break.

# # #

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. My guest is child psychologist and author Alison Gopnik and we’re talking about her latest book, "The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love and the Meaning of Life." We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And let’s go to Nick in La Mesa. Good morning, Nick, and welcome to These Days.

NICK (Caller, La Mesa): Good morning. Thank you for taking my call.

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

NICK: My question is, I’m active duty military so, you know, I’m in and out of the family – the family dynamic quite a bit. My daughter is just about to turn two years old and my wife and I, she’s bilingual with Spanish and English, and we’re trying to teach my daughter, you know, both of those languages. I know that you got a call just a little bit ago about two languages. My question is is that, you know, she seems to be a little bit more behind some of the other kids in our neighborhood that are her same age, as far as speech patterns go. She can say words but she can’t communicate ideas very well. One of the things that she’s really good at is listening to instructions and doing what she’s told but I’m wondering when I can expect and if there’s anything I can do to help foster that a little bit quicker her saying certain words and sounds, like you were mentioning ‘l’s and ‘r’s.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

GOPNIK: Yeah, well, there’s a lot of variation in when and how quickly children talk and it often has a lot to do with just, you know, what that particular child’s motor system is like. And it sounds like your daughter understands a lot and, typically, children understand a lot before they talk a lot. And children get there by lots of different kinds of roots. So it’s certainly – it would certainly be completely normal for a two year old to be putting together some words but not really having complicated sentences although sometimes some two year olds do, so I think it’s probably just different variations. And the main thing that makes a difference to children talking is having people talk to them.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

GOPNIK: So just talking to your child and having conversations with them and hearing what they want to say, that’s pretty clearly the most important thing to actually help children to learn language.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s hear – take a call from Cece in Imperial Valley. Good morning, Cece. Welcome to These Days.

CECE (Caller, Imperial Valley): Good morning. Hi. I was waiting on the phone for such a long time I forgot what my comment was but I just wanted – I just want to let everybody know that I agree with the psychia – the – the…

CAVANAUGH: Yes, Alison.

CECE: Yeah, it was Alison. I was trying to remember her name. You know, babies of a really young age – I have two of my own. Now they’re giants but I have two of my own and very – at such a young age, even though they don’t understand the language, they understand by your tone of your voice when…

GOPNIK: Umm-hmm.

CECE: …you tell them not to do something or when you tell them to do something or you’re trying to explain yourself. And then people say, oh, they’re babies, they don’t understand. Oh, yes, they do because you tell them no. I said no. Yeah, I know you’re understanding me. And they look at you and they – they look at you going, yeah, she knows something. She knows something, you know, she’s not letting on. And so…

CAVANAUGH: And Cece, I think you wanted to talk about – something about a baby’s awareness of being breast fed?

CECE: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: Is that…

CECE: Oh, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

CECE: I remember my daughter, she’d be sitting there and I could look and her expression in her face, she was getting ready to bite me.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

CECE: And I’d be like, no, no. And they know, they know. They get this sneaky little feature on their face and you’re looking at them, and they’re like you’re going to bite me. No bite. No bite. You know? And they – they’re conniving, even though they’re little. They’re conniving. They know. They say, let’s see if she’ll recognize this. You know?

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Cece. Thank you for the call.

GOPNIK: Well, in fact, I think it – There’s two things to say about that. One of them is, I think that even though the philosophers and psychologists weren’t seeing how smart babies were, I think that people who take care of babies have felt this way for a long time. So you’ll often hear mothers and fathers say, oh, yeah, you know, I could swear that she recognized me, or that she, you know, she knows what I’m saying. But, of course, until we could actually prove that scientifically, that was just, you know, what people thought. So in terms of the specific things you’re saying, one of the things that we know is that, in fact, very young babies are tremendously sensitive to facial expressions and voices. And from the time they’re about a year old, for example, if something happens like you show a baby a kind of ambiguous toy and the mom either says – looks frightened or looks happy about the toy, the baby will decide to go to the toy based on the mother’s facial expression. So that sense you have if you say something and you say it as if you really mean it, then babies are very, very sensitive to that. And I think they’re also a bit sensitive to, okay, did you really, really mean that? Or were you just saying it?

CAVANAUGH: I don’t know if this is in your area of expertise but this is a question that I’ve often wondered, Alison. Why is that we, as adults, can’t remember being babies or…

GOPNIK: Right.

CAVANAUGH: …very young children?

GOPNIK: Well, I talk about this a lot in the book. I have a whole chapter about the development of memory. And it turns out that even very young children have very good memories for some things and can remember even specific things that happen to them. But it’s only between about three and five that babies start developing a sense of themselves as a single person who is the same person now that they were a year ago and the same person now that they will be a year from now. We just sort of take it for granted that we know that about ourselves. But if you think about it, it’s actually a kind of amazing thing that you think that the person – that person from a year ago and the person from a year from now are all me, all the same person. And if you think about being a baby or a young child whose mind is changing so much from one moment to another, you can see why they might not recognize that there’s just this single person extending through time. And we think that that may have something to do with the fact that we don’t remember things from when we’re very young. It may also be that our minds are so different when we’re very young, the way we see the world is so different, that we don’t really have a way of translating it into the categories that we have when we get older.

CAVANAUGH: I understand. Well, I think I understand. Tina is calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Tina. Welcome to These Days.

TINA (Caller, San Diego): Thank you. Thanks for taking my call. My question is to Dr. Godnik (sic), is what in your perception, your experience and your research, how does the mother’s state when the baby’s – when she’s pregnant, how does the mother’s state affect the baby’s natural curiosity, discovering wonderment during – in utero and after they’re born? In terms of – And also, trauma. Not physical trauma so much as psychological trauma, say the baby witnessing trauma. I guess I’ve got two questions.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

GOPNIK: So I think the big question is, you know, of course the babies are being – how are the babies influenced by what’s going on in the mom or the other person who’s taking care of them? We don’t know very much about what’s going on when the baby’s in utero, although we do know that things like the mother’s hormones and the mother’s – the chemicals in the mother’s system are also affecting the baby. So babies certainly are sensitive to, say, if a mom has a big flow of adrenaline or if the mom’s stressed. So that we know that but it’s pretty hard to know anymore – anything in more detail. Once babies are born, we know that babies are – learn a tremendous amount from the people around them and are quite sensitive to the experiences of other people from very early. And we know that caregivers, without even meaning to, often just unconsciously will do things that will help the babies to learn. So the way that we hold babies, even the funny voice that we use when we talk to babies, you know, that, oh, you’re my baby, aren’t you? It turns out that that actually helps the babies to learn language. The way that we show babies new objects and demonstrate how they work, that actually helps babies to figure out how tools work. So without doing anything very self-conscious, just by, you know, being themselves and interacting and loving babies, parents are actually also teaching the babies a lot about how the world works.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder what you think about some of these things that people expose either their newborns to or even babies in utero, Baby Einstein tapes…

GOPNIK: Right.

CAVANAUGH: …and all of that. What is your take on that?

GOPNIK: Well, unfortunately, often when parents and even governments hear that babies can learn so much, the first thing they think is, oh, well, we should put them in school much younger, or we should show them Baby Einstein tapes or something like that. The trouble is that the things that the babies are learning are very different from the sort of things that we learn in school, or the ways that they learn are very different from the ways we learn in school. So the best thing that you can say about the, you know, educational toys and the tapes is that they’re useless. The worst you could say is that if babies are sitting and doing that, they’re not doing the things that actually teach them, which are things like playing with toys or watching someone’s face or listening to the language that they produce. So we do know something about what helps babies learn. It’s kind of boring. It’s having people who pay attention to them and care about them and having a rich environment that they can explore and find out about and play with. But it’s not being in school when you’re three years old. And, in fact, one of the things that I talk about a lot in the book is the way that, again, the things we just take for granted about children, their pretend play, the way they get into everything, those are actually the, scientifically, the methods that let them learn as much as they do, much more than the kind of school-based things that we do with five or six year olds.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Lenora is calling us from Paradise Hills. Good morning, Lenora. Welcome to These Days.

LENORA (Caller, Paradise Hills): Good morning. I don’t know if you’ve already addressed this or not because I wasn’t able to listen the whole time but I’m very interested in knowing when does a baby become aware of itself?

GOPNIK: Hmm, that’s a great question and I have a whole chapter about this in my book. One of the interesting things from a philosophical point of view about babies is it makes you realize that a question like that’s really complicated. So what do we mean when we say do you understand the self? And the reason why babies make us realize this is because they seem to have very different – they seem to understand different things about themselves at different ages. When babies are about 18 months old, they start to be able to recognize themselves in mirrors. So if you put a nine month old in front of a mirror and then you put a little spot of rouge on the baby’s nose, the baby just looks at the baby in the mirror and says, oh, that baby has rouge on their nose. But if you do that with an 18 month old, just like a grownup, as soon as they see themselves in the mirror, they touch their own nose as if, you know, what is this? It’s the, you know, the terrible spinach – I have spinach in my teeth phenomenon. So they seem to be recognizing themselves in a mirror but yet they don’t seem to understand that that person in the mirror is the same as the person they were a little while ago. So they don’t, for instance, remember what it was that they saw even a few minutes before. So in some ways babies seem to have a sense of self from the time they’re very young. They seem to differentiate themselves from others even when they’re infants. By the time they’re 18 months, they can recognize themselves in mirrors. But it’s not until they’re about three or four that they have the sense of themselves as sort of the – the hero of their own movie. That seems to be the way that we think of ourselves as adults.

CAVANAUGH: Is that because the brain hasn’t developed anywhere to store this information?

GOPNIK: Well, that’s another good question. All of the changes that we see in the mind are tracked by changes that we see in the brain. In fact, I’m going to be talking at the Body World exhibit this afternoon, and I was just looking at, you know, you can actually see the way that these brain develop and more and more and more connections happen as the babies get older. And in fact, what seems to happen is that early on babies actually have more neural connections than grownups do. So two year olds, in ways, have sort of a brain and a half. They have – they make more neural connections. And what happens as we get older is that we keep the connections that work and we prune away the connections that don’t work, that don’t get activated. And that’s a long process in different parts of the brain. So what seems to happen is that as we – we really have sort of two different brains. We have a young baby brain that’s very, very flexible, that changes very easily, that’s very, very good at learning but isn’t very good at doing anything in particular. And then when we get older, that brain transforms into a brain that’s very efficient. It does what it does very quickly and swiftly and effectively but that isn’t as good at changing, isn’t as good at making a new pathway although even adults can do more of that than we originally thought. So what seems to happen – but the important thing to say is that that happens partly just because we get older but it also happens as a result of our experiences. So our experiences are actually what shape our brain. So when we say, well, is this happening because the brain is changing, well, the brain is changing and the mind is changing and that’s all the same thing. So the brain is changing because the mind is changing and the mind is changing because the brain is changing, and it’s really all just one thing that’s happening.

CAVANAUGH: And, finally, Alison, you have this wonderful phrase. You say for babies every day is like first love in Paris. You know…

GOPNIK: Well, if you want to imagine, you know, what is it like to be the baby, what’s that lantern consciousness like, I think a good way of describing it is that it’s as if you’re in – think about what you’re like when you’re in a foreign country where everything around you is new and you’re trying to take in all that new information at once. And it seems to me that what happens is that then what happens is you become more conscious, not less conscious. So, you know, we go through – you could go through months of zombie, meeting attending and working and going through and driving at home, and then you go to Paris and everything is vivid and wonderful. We even know that the baby’s brain chemicals are in some ways kind of like the chemical changes that come when you drink a lot of coffee. So caffeine actually gives you a little more of that lantern, vivid, aware consciousness. So I say it’s not just being – like being a baby is like first love in Paris because, after all, for babies everything is new. It’s like first love in Paris when you’ve had four double espressos so it’s no wonder you might wake up at three o’clock in the morning crying, too.

CAVANAUGH: Alison Gopnik, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GOPNIK: Well, thank you very much for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Alison Gopnik’s new book is called "The Philosophical Baby,” and you can hear her speak today at 4:00 p.m. at the San Diego Natural History Museum. It’s part of their Body Worlds exhibit. And if you need more information on that, you can go to KPBS.org/TheseDays for more information. These Days is produced by Angela Carone, Hank Crook, Pat Finn, Josette Herdell, Sharon Heilbrunn and senior producer Natalie Walsh. Production manager is Kurt Kohnen with technical assistance from Tim Felton. Our production assistants are Jordan Wicht and Rachel Ferguson. The These Days theme was composed and performed by Gilbert Castellanos and his band. I’m Maureen Cavanaugh. I hope you’ll enjoy the rest of the week. You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.

Comments

Avatar for user 'tktremper'

tktremper | September 24, 2009 at 10:47 a.m. ― 5 years, 1 month ago

The concepts expoused by Professor Gopnik are not new. Sometime around 1900, Maria Montessori recognized that children's cognitive thought proceses are inherently different from those of adults. She recognized that children have an "absorbent mind" from birth to around age 6, "possessing limitless motivation to achieve competence within their environment and to perfect skills and understandings."

I am glad that the professor is getting the message out; nevertheless it bears explainign that hers is not an original concept. Credit should go where credit is due.

Teri Tremper

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