- Babies’ and young children’s cognitive abilities far surpass those that psychologists long attributed to them. They can, for instance, imagine another person’s experiences and grasp cause and effect.
- Children learn about the world much as scientists do—in effect, conducting experiments, analyzing statistics and forming theories to account for their observations.
- The long helplessness of babies may be an evolutionary trade-off, a necessary consequence of having brains wired for prodigious feats of learning and creativity.
Thirty years ago most psychologists, philosophers and psychiatrists thought that babies and young children were irrational, egocentric and amoral. They believed children were locked in the concrete here and now—unable to understand cause and effect, imagine the experiences of other people, or appreciate the difference between reality and fantasy. People still often think of children as defective adults.
But in the past three decades scientists have discovered that even the youngest children know more than we would ever have thought possible. Moreover, studies suggest that children learn about the world in much the same way that scientists do—by conducting experiments, analyzing statistics, and forming intuitive theories of the physical, biological and psychological realms. Since about 2000, researchers have started to understand the underlying computational, evolutionary and neurological mechanisms that underpin these remarkable early abilities. These revolutionary findings not only change our ideas about babies, they give us a fresh perspective on human nature itself.
This article was originally published with the title How Babies Think.