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The Philosophical Baby

In The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life, author Alison Gopnik looks at what science knows about your baby’s brain, and comes to some remarkable realizations about the extent to which babies think, feel and love.(Check out Babble’s interview with the author here!) In the excerpt below, Gopnik answers the question: “Why do we have childhoods in the first place?”

The very fact of childhood – our long protected period of immaturity – plays a crucial role in this human ability to change the world and ourselves. Children aren’t just defective adults, primitive grown-ups gradually attaining our perfection and complexity. Instead, children and adults are different forms of Homo sapiens. They have very different, though equally complex and powerful, minds, brains, and forms of consciousness, designed to serve different evolutionary functions. Human development is more like metamorphosis, like caterpillars becoming butterflies, than like simple growth-though it may seem that children are the vibrant, wandering butterflies who transform into caterpillars inching along the grown-up path.

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What is childhood? It’s a distinctive developmental period in which young human beings are uniquely dependent on adults. Childhood literally couldn’t exist without caregivers. Why do we go through a period of childhood at all? Human beings have a much more extended period of immaturity and dependence, a much longer childhood, than other species, and this period of immaturity has become longer as human history has gone on (as we parents of twenty-somethings may recognize with a sigh). Why make babies so helpless for so long, and why make adults invest so much time and energy in caring for them?

An animal that depends on imagination has to have some time to exercise it. Childhood is that time. This protracted period of immaturity is intimately tied up with the human capacity for change. Our human capacities for imagination and learning have great advantages; they allow us to adapt to more different environments than any other species and to change our own environments in a way that no other animal can. But they also have one great disadvantage – learning takes time. You don’t want to be stuck exploring all the new possible ways to hunt deer when you haven’t eaten for two days, or learning all the accumulated cultural wisdom about saber-toothed tigers when one is chasing you. It would be a good idea for me to spend a week exploring all the capabilities of my new computer, as my teenage son would, but with the saber-toothed tigers of grant deadlines and classes breathing down my neck, I’ll just go on relying on the old routines.

An animal that depends on the accumulated knowledge of past generations has to have some time to acquire that knowledge. An animal that depends on imagination has to have some time to exercise it. Childhood is that time. Children are protected from the usual exigencies of adult life; they don’t need to hunt deer or ward off saber-toothed tigers, let alone write grant proposals or teach classes – all of that is done for them. All they need to do is learn. When we’re children we’re devoted to learning about our world and imagining all the other ways that world could be. When we become adults we put all that we’ve learned and imagined to use.

If we focus on adult abilities, long-term planning, swift and automatic execution, rapid skillful reaction to the deer and the tigers and the deadlines, then babies and young children will indeed look pretty pathetic. But if we focus on our distinctive capacities for change, especially imagination and learning, then it’s the adults who look slow. The caterpillars and butterflies do different things well.

This basic division of labor between children and adults is reflected in their minds, their brains, their everyday activities, and even their conscious experience. Babies’ brains seem to have special qualities that make them especially well suited for imagination and learning. Babies’ brains are actually more highly connected than adult brains; more neural pathways are available to babies than adults. As we grow older and experience more, our brains “prune out” the weaker, less used pathways and strengthen the ones that are used more often. If you looked at a map of the baby’s brain it would look like old Paris, with lots of winding, interconnected little streets. In the adult brain those little streets have been replaced by fewer but more efficient neural boulevards, capable of much more traffic. Young brains are also much more plastic and flexible – they change much more easily. But they are much less efficient; they don’t work as quickly or effectively.

There are even more specific brain changes that play a particularly important role in the metamorphosis from childhood to adulthood. They involve the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that is uniquely well developed in human beings, and that neuroscientists often argue is the seat of distinctively human abilities. Scientists have located sophisticated capacities for thinking, planning, and control in the prefrontal area. For example, through a tragic combination of error and arrogance, psychiatric patients in the fifties were subjected to prefrontal lobotomies – operations that removed this part of their brains. Although these patients remained superficially functional, they had largely lost the ability to make decisions, to control their impulses, and to act intelligently. Anyone who tries to persuade a three-year-old to get dressed for preschool will develop an appreciation of inhibition. The prefrontal cortex is one of the last parts of the brain to mature. The wiring of this part of the cortex, the process of pruning out some connections and strengthening others, may not be complete until the mid-twenties (another sigh from parents of twentysomethings). Recently neuroscientists have discovered that all of the brain is more plastic and changeable, even in adulthood, than we ever thought before. Still, some parts, the visual system, for example, seem to take their adult form in the first few months of life. Others, like the prefrontal cortex, and the connections between the prefrontal area and other parts of the brain, mature much more slowly. They continue to change through adolescence and beyond. The visual cortex is much the same at six months and sixty, while the prefrontal area takes on its final form only in adulthood.

Anyone who tries to persuade a three-year-old to get dressed for preschool will develop an appreciation of inhibition.You might think this means that children are defective adults, that they lack the parts of the brain that are most crucial for rational adult thought. But you could equally say that, when it comes to imagination and learning, prefrontal immaturity allows children to be superadults. The prefrontal cortex is especially involved in “inhibition.” It actually helps shut down other parts of the brain, limiting and focusing experience, action, and thought. This process is crucial for the complex thinking, planning, and acting that adults engage in. To execute a complex plan, for example, you have to perform just the actions that are dictated by that plan, and not all the other possible actions. And you have to pay attention to just the events that are relevant to your plan and not all the others. Anyone who tries to persuade a three-year-old to get dressed for preschool will develop an appreciation of inhibition. It would be so much easier if he didn’t stop to explore every speck of dust on the floor, pull out all the drawers in turn, and take off his socks just after you’ve put them on.

But, as we’ll see, inhibition has a downside if you are primarily interested in imagination and learning. To be imaginative, you want to consider as many possibilities as you can, even wild and unprecedented ones (maybe the dresser would work better without all those drawers). In learning, you want to remain open to anything that may turn out to be the truth (maybe that speck of dust holds the secret of the universe). The lack of strong prefrontal control may actually be a benefit of childhood.

Those different brains and minds mean that adults and children also spend their days differently – we work, babies play. Play is the signature of childhood. It’s a living, visible manifestation of imagination and learning in action. It’s also the most visible sign of the paradoxically useful uselessness of immaturity. By definition, play – the baby nesting blocks and pushing the buttons of a busy box, the toddler pretending to be everything from a mermaid to a ninja – has no obvious point or goal or function. It does nothing to advance the basic evolutionary goals of mating and predation, fleeing and fighting. And yet these useless actions – and the adult equivalents we squeeze into our workday – are distinctively, characteristically human and deeply valuable. Plays are play, and so are novels, paintings, and songs.

From another perspective, we adults are just the final product of childhood.All these differences between children and adults suggest that children’s consciousness, the texture of their everyday experience of the world, must be very different from ours. Children’s brains and minds are radically different from ours, so their experience must be too. These differences are not just a source of idle wonder. We can actually use what we know about children’s minds and brains to explore their consciousness. We can use the tools of psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy to understand the inner lives of children. In turn, understanding children’s consciousness gives us a new perspective on our everyday adult consciousness and on what it means to be human.

From another perspective, we adults are just the final product of childhood. These differences also raise intriguing questions about identity. Babies and adults are radically different creatures with different minds, brains, and experiences. But from another perspective we adults are just the final product of childhood. Our brains are the brains that were shaped by experience, our lives are the lives that began as babies, our consciousness is the consciousness that reaches back to childhood. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that no man ever steps in the same river twice because neither the river nor the man is the same. Thinking about children and childhood makes it vivid that our lives, and our history as a species, are that sort of ever-changing perpetually flowing river.

All the processes of change, imagination, and learning ultimately depend on love. Human caregivers love their babies in a particularly intense and significant way. That love is one of the engines of human change. Parental love isn’t just a primitive and primordial instinct, continuous with the nurturing behavior of other animals (though certainly there are such continuities). Instead, our extended life as parents also plays a deep role in the emergence of the most sophisticated and characteristically human capacities. Our protracted immaturity is possible only because we can rely on the love of the people who take care of us. We can learn from the discoveries of earlier generations because those same loving caregivers invest in teaching us. It isn’t just that without mothering humans would lack nurturance, warmth, and emotional security. They would also lack culture, history, morality, science, and literature.

Excerpted from the Introduction to The Philosophical Baby by Alison Gopnik (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, August 4, 2009). You can buy the book here.

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