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Author Gopnik on the wonders of babies’ brains

on September 4, 2009

It’s not surprising that Alison Gopnik, 54, mother of three adult children and the eldest of six siblings, became fascinated at a young age by the cognitive goings-on of babies. She was around them all the time.

“My first son was born when I was 23, so there’s about 5 minutes in there when I wasn’t taking care of a baby,” Gopnik said.

The child psychologist and U.C. Berkeley professor arrived last night at Mrs. Dalloway’s, the College Avenue bookstore in the Elmwood, in a silken white-striped blouse, her short hair touching her collar and her tousled fringe skirting the top of her spectacles. She came to read from her new book, The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and Meaning of Life and talk to a standing-room-only crowd about the endless capabilities of babies’ brilliant brains.

“Being a baby is like first love in Paris after you’ve had like five double espressos,” said Gopnick, who teaches both psychology and philosophy, as she described how the brain chemistry of babies compares to that of adults. It’s why a baby can look at a ceiling fan and be totally captivated, she said.

Baby as brainiac is a relatively novel concept in the world of science and philosophy, and research to back the new approach is on the rise.

Scientists are finding that babies as young as eight months old are developing statistical reasoning skills. This is a long way from the centuries-old belief that babies were just crying blobs with no real sense of the world around them. And that’s just the start of it. Empathy and a sense of otherness, scientists and psychologists say, exist in babies as young as 15 months.

“Traditionally people thought children and babies were amoral until adolescence,” Gopnick said. “They understood social conventions but they didn’t have a moral sense. But there’s increasing evidence that that’s not true. Even 15-month-olds already behave in genuinely altruistic ways.”

Gopnik said she was referring to a recent study in which an adult.would stand across a pillow-laden room from a 15 month old and drop a pen. When the pen reached the floor, the baby being observed would climb over all the pillows to retrieve it. But when the experimenter threw the pen to the ground–suggesting that the experimenter didn’t need help or want the pen back–the baby would stay put. “Chimps, by the way, don’t do this,” Gopnik said, explaining that when the same experiment was conducted on baby chimpanzees, the little ones did not come to the rescue.

Gopnik’s large, expressive eyes were easily visible from the back of the store as she talked about cognitive systems that explore versus cognitive systems that exploit.  It’s hard for the human brain to use both at the same time, she said. Evolution has solved this for humans, Gopnick suggested, by giving us one period, childhood, where we get to explore; then giving us a second period, adulthood, when we can exploit, making the most of the things we explored earlier on.

“Children are the R & D department of the human species,” Gopnick said.  She meant Research and Development — “the blue-sky guys, the brainstormers,” Gopnik said, as she read a passage from the book explaining how the two systems complement each other. “And adults are Production and Marketing. Children think up a million ideas, mostly useless, and we take the three or four good ones and make them real.”

A popular subject in her book is the idea that play is paramount in early childhood development. Gopnik believes the primary way children under five learn is through exploration, not through structured classroom settings.

“A slightly embarrassing story about [the importance of play] is when I did an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times and my editor said, ‘Well, could you give some specific examples of things like government policy that would go against this?’ Gopnick said.  “And I said, ‘Oh, no, well, there couldn’t be. No one would actually explicitly say you should have reading drills instead of play.'”

She smiled, looking out into the crowd.

“And then I actually went and read No Child Left Behind’s guidelines about preschool, and right there in black and white on the government website it said: Children should be doing reading drills and math drills if 3, 4, and 5 year olds are going to get money from the state for preschool,” Gopnick said.  “Just letting them play and explore isn’t good enough. I was completely shocked.”

Gopnik does understand the counter-argument, she said. She knows that when we see babies learning at such rapid speeds and absorbing everything around them, the inclination to immerse them in a structured setting is understandable. “But it’s just not the way children are learning,” Gopnik said. “And we have good scientific evidence of this.”

Child’s  play, having imaginary friends, playing make-believe — all these are fundamental, Gopnick said, for children to work out ways of engaging the world around them.  “Children in preschool are in the corners with the fairy tiaras and the costumes,” she said.  “They’re learning about human nature when they’re doing that. And people are saying, ‘Get rid of the pretend corners so we can have more hours of reading drill.’ I think that’s terrible.”

And what should ever come of those imaginary friends when we grow up? Gopnik has an idea. “I’ve always said that the secret to being a successful novelist,” she said, “is keeping your imaginary friends’ phone numbers in your Rolodex.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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