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Alison Gopnik

Your baby looks up at you with eyes that appear so wise and caring, and you wonder: How much does she know? What does she feel? What’s going on in her mind?

For a long time, science could tell us little about the minds of babies and young children, and, as developmental psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik points out in her perspective-expanding new book, The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life, philosophy shrugged at the subject as well. The last thirty years, however, have seen a revolution in our understanding of the way babies’ minds work – and why they work the way they do. (Read an excerpt here.)

Babble spoke with Gopnik, who laughingly describes herself as “extremely pro-baby,”about babies’ memories, their capacity for empathy and what they can teach us about ourselves. – Amy Reiter

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Our concept of what and how babies remember has changed. How do their memories differ from ours?

We can’t remember our lives as babies and very young children. You might have thought that that’s a sign that babies don’t have a lot of thinking going on. But it turns out that, in fact, babies are thinking and understanding the world from the time they’re very young.

The difference between their memory and our memory isn’t how good their memory is – in some ways their memory is extremely good – it’s that they haven’t made up a story of their lives yet the way we do when we remember things. Adults have what scientists call episodic or autobiographical memory; we take our whole lives and turn them into one single, focused story. But what looks like a defect from one perspective turns out to be a strength from another. Babies are designed to learn. What they think about the world and about themselves is changing all the time, so it makes sense that babies and young children don’t treat themselves and their own identity as this thing that’s staying the same.

So babies build a sense of self as they grow?

The famous philosopher Descartes said that the one thing that adults knew absolutely for sure was that they had a self. That’s Cogito ergo sum. “I think, therefore I am.” But developmental psychology tells us that in fact that sense of a self is something that we learn, something we actually construct as a result of our experience. Even eighteen-month-olds have some sense of themselves as a physical object – they can recognize themselves in mirrors – but it’s only when children get to be about three or four that they start to construct the idea of a self that is constant throughout time. And that’s connected to their new kind of memory, this new episodic or autobiographical memory.

And what about morality and empathy and altruism? You talk about morality being innate, but also something that is built.

We can see that even newborn babies make connections between themselves and others, and by the time they’re just fourteen months, they’re already behaving in genuinely altruistic and empathic ways. They feel when other people are in pain and try to help people who need help. There are these beautiful studies by Felix Warneken that show that, when the experimenter drops a pencil on the other side of the room, babies will crawl over a whole bunch of cushions to try to get to him and help him get his pencil back, in a way that chimpanzees, for example, won’t. So these very basic capacities for feeling, for recognizing how someone else is feeling, and for trying to help people rather than hurt people seem to be there very early, at least by eighteen months or so.

So they have a sense of moral absolutes as opposed to relative or arbitrary rules or laws. So much of this runs counter to what we’ve been told. I remember being told early on that babies didn’t have a capacity for empathy. And it was clear to me, immediately, that both of my children did. Why did it take us so long to figure that out?

I think there are three parts to the answer. One is that the people who knew the most about babies and children, who were closest to them, who were paying the most attention to them, I think, did have all these feelings about children. But of course, they were women. And the people who were the philosophers and the psychologists and the psychiatrists and the pediatricians were men. And if you just look at babies and young children superficially, they do look pretty defective.

A second part is that because babies and young children can’t talk yet it’s very hard to figure out what they’re thinking. And even preschoolers, if you ask them a question, what they’re likely to answer is “It was my birthday five days ago and there’s a blue sky” — one of these wonderful stream of consciousness monologues. So we had to find ways of getting young children and babies to tell us what they think without actually asking them. The invention of videotape was a tremendous asset from that perspective. And once we had that, we could design all of these incredibly ingenious and clever ways to use where babies look and what kids do and what they give you and what their actions are to make inferences about what they think.

“Children are designed to learn and explore.” The third part is the picture that comes from this new research. Instead of thinking of babies as just growing up to be adults, a better way of thinking about them from an evolutionary perspective is that it’s as if babydom and young childhood are just another developmental stage of the human species, like butterflies and caterpillars. Babies and young children are incredibly bad at doing the kinds of things that we think are really important as adults, like planning or inhibiting what they’re doing or having what psychologists call executive function. They’re terrible at all that. But it turns out that there’s actually a kind of intrinsic trade-off between all those adult abilities and abilities like being able to learn, to be flexible, to be creative.

So early childhood serves a specific evolutionary purpose.

Right, why do we have childhood at all? I mean, we all have to put so much energy into just keeping babies alive. Why aren’t we just like cats who throw the kittens out of the nest?

The answer seems to be that as adult humans we know a lot more about the world than any other animal does. We can learn about the world, imagine different ways that the world can be, and make those real. That’s our great human gift. And that’s an enormous evolutionary advantage, but it has one big disadvantage, which is while you’re learning about the world, you’re not going to be very good at doing anything to the world. You don’t want to be sitting there, looking at that charging mastodon and saying, “Let’s see, what should I do about this? Maybe this tool would work.” And the way nature seems to have solved that problem is to give us this period of childhood where we can learn and imagine and think of possibilities and we don’t have to actually plan or act because we have these parents who take care of us. Then we take all the things that we learn as children and we put them to use when we’re adults. It’s as if children are the Research and Development division of the human species.

How can we really tell what their inner worlds feel like to them?

Well, for a long time, I and a lot of developmental psychologists would have said we can’t say very much about what it really feels like. But I’ve changed my mind about that. As we understand more about babies’ brains, we can make some guesses by saying, “Okay, as adults what’s our brain function like when we’re in different states of consciousness?” Then we can go backwards and say, okay, well, if our brain differed in this way, how would we expect our consciousness to differ?

“Remember that babies are already as smart as they can possibly be.”As adults, when we pay focused attention to something, we’re very vividly conscious of that thing that we’re paying attention to, and we shut out all the distractions around us. When you look at babies and young children, it turns out that they’re not very good at that kind of focused attention — we all know that. But that’s not because they’re not experiencing things. In fact, they experience a much wider range of information from the world around them. Instead of attention being this spotlight that they focus on particular things in the world, it’s like a lantern that’s illuminating everything going on around them.

I think as adults, we can get ourselves into states that are kind of like those baby states when we travel to a different place or when we are involved in certain kinds of meditation. We can go back and say, “Oh, this is what it’s like when you’re learning about the world, soaking in what’s going on around you, instead of being in our little narrow focused track of planning and acting and deciding what to do next.”

So bottom line: What can children’s minds tell us about love, truth and the meaning of life?

Looking at babies and young children makes us realize how deep the possibilities of being human are. So often when people talk about evolutionary psychology, they talk about all the ways that people are limited, that having brains that were shaped in the Pleistocene as hunter-gatherers makes us do all sorts of stupid things. When we look at children, we realize that we also have incredible capacities for imagination and possibility and change, even as adults. We get ourselves into these ruts of acting and planning, but part of what makes us human is that we’re not stuck doing the things that we always did.

What can parents, in particular, take away from all this?

Parents, especially middle-class North American parents, get so caught up in this “What should I do now to make my baby better? What books should I read?” mentality that they forget that part of being a parent or caregiver is that you get to witness literally the greatest thing that human beings ever do. This process of learning and imagining that we see in childhood, it’s the most distinctively human thing. We humans have a much longer childhood than anyone else, and a lot of the things that make us most basically human, our capacities to love, our capacities to empathize with other people, our capacities to imagine other ways the world could be, our capacity to learn, those are things that we’re seeing in their fullest form in babies and young children. So instead of being involved in caregiving and all you can think is “Okay, what can I do to make my baby smarter?” remember that babies are already as smart as they can possibly be, and you get a chance, through the act of caregiving, to further the deepest parts of human nature. And as much as it’s exhausting and stressful and all the rest of it, parents might take some time to get out of the “Oh my god, what should I do next?” mode and just pay attention and appreciate the fact that this fantastic thing is happening. That’s the moral of the science.

The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life on Amazon.

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