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.

If you look at baby’s attention you see a related but very different picture. Babies and young children are much worse at intentionally focusing their attention than adults. Instead, they seem to pay attention to anything that’s unexpected or interesting – anything they can learn from. We say that children are bad at paying attention but we really mean that they’re bad at not paying attention – they easily get distracted by anything interesting. And young brains are much more generally “plastic”, more flexible and better at learning than adult brains. Young brains are bathed in the cholinergic transmitters that enhance attention in adults, but the inhibitory transmitters that damp consciousness down haven’t yet come on line. If you put all that together it suggests that babies consciousness is more like a lantern than a spotlight – that it illumines the entire world around them.

Finally, you can think about what adult experience is like when we put ourselves in the same position as babies. When we travel for instance, we are suddenly surrounded by an unexpected new world and, instead of just focusing on the important things, we take in lots of information at once. That actually makes us more vividly conscious of our surroundings, not less. I think that for babies, every day is like first love in Paris.

LEHRER: You begin The Philosophical Baby by investigating the purpose of pretending. How does make-believe help young children understand how the world actually works?

GOPNIK: Why do young children spend so much of their time pretending? The traditional answer was that children were confused about the difference between fantasy and reality. But more recent studies show that children know quite well that they are just pretending. Instead they seem to use their imagination the way that creative scientists do. One of the big new ideas about how babies learn is that they use what computer scientists call “Bayesian inference”. That means that you imagine lots of different possibilities and test how likely each possibility is.

When we have a theory of the world, we can not only say what the world is like now, we can also explore what would happen if the world was different. We can ask what would happen, for instance, if there was a rocket that traveled close to the speed of light. In fact, the ability to imagine these possibilities is one of the biggest advantages of understanding how the world works. Because we imagine, we can have invention and technology. It's actually play, not necessity, that is the mother of invention.

LEHRER: And what about imaginary friends? Do they serve an important psychological function?

GOPNIK: Imaginary friends are one of the weirder forms of pretend play in childhood. But the research shows that imaginary friends actually help children understand the other people around them and imagine all the many ways that people could be.

LEHRER: You eloquently write: "This remarkable ability to find the truth depends on the capacity to imagine and to love." Could you explain what you mean by that?

GOPNIK: Scientists and philosophers tend to treat knowledge, imagination and love as if they were all very separate parts of human nature. But when it comes to children all three are deeply entwined. Children learn the truth by imagining all the ways the world could be, and testing those possibilities. And children can only learn so much because adults help care for them. There is a special intense love between human children and the people who take care of them, not just mothers but also fathers and older sisters and great-uncles and baby-sitters. And that love doesn’t just provide us with emotional warmth and sustenance. It also lets human beings, as a species, understand the world and create new worlds ourselves.

Are you a scientist? Have you recently read a peer-reviewed paper that you want to write about? Then contact Mind Matters editor Jonah Lehrer, the science writer behind the blog The Frontal Cortex and the book Proust Was a Neuroscientist. His latest book is How We Decide.