Alison Gopnik is a psychologist and philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley. She's also the author of the newly released book The Philosophical Baby, which explores the inner world of young children. Mind Matters editor Jonah Lehrer chats with Gopnik about why babies might be more conscious than adults, the benefits of having an imaginary friend and why play, not necessity, is the mother of invention.
LEHRER: What first drew you to study the baby mind? As you point out in The Philosophical Baby, there's a longstanding assumption that babies are mostly mindless little people, concerned solely with their physical needs.
GOPNIK: There were three currents that converged in my own life. I’m the oldest of six children and I had my own first baby when I was 23. So I’ve always been interested in babies, and I had lots of opportunities to watch them. If you look at babies casually, as most philosophers and psychologists did for 2500 years, you don’t see much. But if you look at them carefully, as generations of mothers did, and as the great psychologist Jean Piaget did, you begin to suspect that there is much more going on. The trouble is that caregivers didn’t have the scientific evidence to back up those intuitions, and even Piaget was constrained by the limited methods that were available 70 years ago. If you just observe and interview children you’ll still miss a lot.
Then I became a philosopher and got interested in some of the big deep classical philosophical problems, especially the problem of how we come to know about the world around us. And I began to wonder whether babies and children might hold some of the answers. Putting together philosophy and children would have been difficult for most of history. But very fortunately for me, when I started graduate school there was a real scientific revolution taking place in developmental psychology. New video-recording technology meant that for the first time we could take those natural observations of children and turn them into a real science. And it became clear that that science could start to answer some of those deep philosophical questions about the human mind.
LEHRER: You provocatively argue that, in some respects, babies might be more conscious than adults. Could you explain?
GOPNIK: The conventional wisdom has been that babies must be somehow less conscious than adults, if, in fact, they are conscious at all. Even developmental psychologists, including me, have tended to say that the amazing thinking that we see in babies is “just unconscious”. But there has been a lot of interesting work on the neural and cognitive bases of consciousness in the last few years, and that leads to a very different picture.
As adults when we attend to something in the world we are vividly conscious of that particular thing, and we shut out the surrounding world. The classic metaphor is that attention is like a spotlight, illuminating one part of the world and leaving the rest in darkness. In fact, attending carefully to one event may actually make us less conscious of the rest of the world. We even know something about how the brain does this: connections from the prefrontal part of the brain both enhance our perception of the attended event and inhibit our perception of other events. And there is a chemical basis for this, too. When we pay attention to an event certain brain chemicals called cholinergic transmitters make a small part of the brain more flexible and “plastic”, better at learning, and simultaneously other inhibitory transmitters actually make irrelevant parts of the brain less flexible.