What Do Babies Think About?Hannah Tennant-Moore
There are few more compelling mysteries than the contents of a baby’s brain, not only because we wonder whether infants think and feel much more than they can communicate, but because we were all at one time in this state of wide-eyed wonder.
In a fascinating article in Slate, Paul Bloom reviews Alison Gopnik’s new book The Philosophical Baby, which examines what babies’ minds can teach us about creativity and awareness.
Parsing the most up-to-date developmental psychology, Gopnik argues that babies experience the world as a constant stream of unknown sights, sounds, and sensations. According to Bloom, “Gopnik uses the example of an adult being dumped into the middle of a foreign city, knowing nothing about what’s going on, with no goals and plans, constantly turning to see new things, and struggling to make sense of it all.” If you remember the last time you were alone in a new country, it’s not hard to understand why babies spend so much time sleeping and crying.
But Gopnik also believes that the clean slate of babies’ minds means that they are, in some ways, more conscious than adults, because they’re not prone to distractions about future plans or willful, single-minded focus on one task. Bloom summarizes Gopnik’s thinking this way: “When it comes to imagination and learning, their openness to experience makes them ‘superadults’—not just smart but smarter than we are.” Bloom believes that babies’ open, wandering minds represent the mental state most suited to creative thought and invention.
For his part, Bloom argues that, as romantically appealing as Gopnik’s theory of the Zen of babyhood is, infants are more discerning than she gives them credit for. Babies understand that objects exist even when they’re no longer in sight and that they are subject to the laws of gravity (how long does it take for your baby to tire of the drop-and-fetch game?) They also understand simple addition and subtraction.
And studies have found that six-month-olds would prefer to interact with people who have recently helped someone than with people who have recently disrupted someone else’s plans. In other words, they’re capable of making social judgments.
So while Bloom believes that “Gopnik is right to be awed at an infant’s creative prowess,” he believes baby’s heads are not the empty recesses of learning that she takes them to be. Perhaps babies and toddlers are able to learn so much about the world so quickly because they come into it with pretty advanced tools.
Do you think your baby is more conscious than you are?