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BOOK REVIEW

Brainstorming Babies

Ethan Remmel

THE PHILOSOPHICAL BABY: What Children’s Minds Tell Us about Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life. Alison Gopnik. x + 288 pp. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009. $25.

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a baby, or how a young child’s perceptions and introspections might differ from those of an adult? Reading Alison Gopnik’s new book, The Philosophical Baby, is probably the closest you will ever come to knowing.

Gopnik is a leading developmental psychologist, an expert on philosophy of mind and an excellent writer. What distinguishes this book from others on children’s cognition is the author’s emphasis on philosophical issues such as consciousness, identity and morality. She argues that the psychological study of children provides a rich source of insight into these issues, one that philosophers have traditionally overlooked.

Within developmental psychology, Gopnik is perhaps best known for promoting (with Henry Wellman, Andrew Meltzoff and others) the “theory theory”—the idea that children construct implicit causal models of the world (theories) using the same psychological mechanisms that scientists use to construct explicit scientific theories. In other words, children are like little scientists—or, as Gopnik prefers to put it, scientists are like big children. The focus in this book is broader. Gopnik argues that although young children’s thinking may seem illogical and their play functionless, their imagination and exploration actually reflect the operation of the same powerful causal learning mechanisms that enable our uniquely human achievements in areas such as science or art.

As a philosopher, Gopnik is not afraid to entertain odd ideas. In fact, she is good at making counterintuitive propositions seem plausible. Take, for example, the idea that our own mental states are not perceived directly and infallibly (as it seems to us) but are instead inferred using the same theory of mind that we use to infer the mental states of others. So if our theory of mind changes, our conscious experience could change with it. This idea was the basis for Gopnik’s provocative 1993 article in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, “How We Know Our Minds” (the article that made me want to study cognitive development), and it reappears in this book. Or, for another example, take the idea that babies are more conscious than adults, not less. This may seem like a strange claim, but my skepticism was erased once Gopnik finished making her case.

The Philosophical Baby offers a refreshing alternative to the current dominance of an evolutionary perspective in popular books on cognitive science, such as those of Steven Pinker. Not that Gopnik doubts that evolution has shaped our brains, but she places less emphasis on hardwired cognitive modules that evolved for a Stone Age environment and more on the cognitive capacities that allow us to transcend our biological predispositions and create completely new environments.

Gopnik comes from an intellectual family: Both of her parents were professors at McGill University, her mother Myrna is known for work on the genetics of language, her brother Adam is a New Yorker essayist and author, and her brother Blake is art critic for the Washington Post. And I would say that The Philosophical Baby is written for an intellectual audience. It is not a book to pick up for some quick parenting tips. But neither is it pretentious or pedantic. Gopnik deals with technical topics, but she avoids technical terms and jargon. She distills complex studies into simple but accurate descriptions. There are no citations or footnotes in the text, but selected references for all empirical statements are provided in the endnotes. The text is lightened by anecdotes from her experience as a parent and by pop-culture references (to The Matrix, Sesame Street and so forth). Psychologists in particular are likely to find interesting the little personal details she provides about other researchers—that Henry Wellman used to be a preschool teacher, for example.

Gopnik has a gift for metaphors that make you think about something in a new way. She compares human development to insect metamorphosis, saying that it is “like caterpillars becoming butterflies,” but with the twist that “children are the vibrant, wandering butterflies who transform into caterpillars inching along the grown-up path.” She also posits an evolutionary division of labor by age, with children as the research and development department—“the blue-sky guys, the brainstormers”—and adults as “production and marketing,” deciding which ideas to promote. She also says that babies’ brains are like the little streets of old Paris, whereas adult brains have broader boulevards. And this is all in a three-page span of the introduction!

In the nine chapters that follow, the text covers a wide range of topics and never feels rushed or repetitive. The chapter on early experience and later outcomes does feel a bit like a lecture in a course on developmental psychology—and the psychological evidence never quite connects back to the philosophical questions about identity posed at the beginning of the chapter. However, that’s one of the shortest chapters, and the information is still interesting.

For me, the high points of the book were the two middle chapters on consciousness—one about external consciousness (awareness of the outside world) and the other about internal consciousness (awareness of our own mental states). Gopnik argues that the external consciousness of young children is like a lantern rather than a spotlight (a metaphor originally proposed by John Flavell)—children distribute their attention more evenly across their environment, whereas adults focus on the things they think are important and ignore the rest. For example, in a study by Dan Simons, adults who were instructed to count passes between basketball players in a video did not notice someone in a gorilla suit walking through the scene. Young children, on the other hand, aren’t sure what’s important and pay attention to everything, which makes them good incidental learners, as chagrined parents discover when their children repeat choice phrases they weren’t meant to overhear.

Gopnik also says that the internal consciousness of young children is “more like wandering than voyaging,” whereas that of adults is “like a path.” This metaphor doesn’t work quite as well, but her point is that adults have a sense of self that connects past memories, present experiences and future plans into an integrated whole, whereas to young children life is, as Elbert Hubbard put it, “just one damned thing after another.” For example, in a study by Danny Povinelli, young children had stickers surreptitiously placed on their foreheads during a game. When shown a video replay a few minutes later, three-year-olds recognized themselves but did not make the connection that the sticker must still be there. Five-year-olds immediately reached up and removed the sticker. Young children clearly think, but research by John Flavell suggests that they are not aware that they or other people are thinking, unless there are obvious external cues. For example, five-year-olds who were asked in which room in their house they kept their toothbrush but were told not to answer aloud often denied thinking about anything. Few reported thinking about their bathroom, even though they said “bathroom” if allowed to answer aloud.

In these chapters, Gopnik suggests certain activities that might give adults a sense of what young children’s conscious experience is like. Our external consciousness is perhaps most like theirs when we are traveling in an unfamiliar country or practicing a type of meditation that emphasizes clearing the mind and being present in the moment. Our internal consciousness may be most like theirs when we free-associate, or when random thoughts run through our heads just before we fall asleep, or when we meditate by focusing on observing our thoughts without controlling them. I don’t have space to do justice to her arguments here, but if these analogies seem facile or banal, trust me, they don’t in the original.

The last few chapters concern caregiving, love and morality. By the end of the book, Gopnik is not so much making an academic argument as presenting her personal philosophy of what gives life meaning. Not surprisingly, it’s children, and—like most parents—I would have to agree. Although historically they have been underappreciated by philosophers, our children are what we really care about.

I highly recommend reading The Philosophical Baby alongside Michael Lewis’s hilarious new memoir Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood. Juxtaposing these books by two hyperliterate Berkeley parents—one earnest about the mysteries of children’s minds and the other irreverent about the mundane inanity of parenting—adds to one’s reading experience. (At one point in Home Game, Lewis is even mistaken for Alison’s brother Adam.) From very different directions, Gopnik and Lewis arrive at the same conclusion about the relationship between love and care. Gopnik says,

It’s not so much that we care for children because we love them as that we love them because we care for them.

Lewis puts it this way:

The simple act of taking care of a living creature, even when you don’t want to, maybe especially when you don’t want to, is transformative. . . . All the little things that you must do for a helpless creature to keep it alive cause you to love it.

Ethan Remmel is a cognitive developmental psychologist at Western Washington University in Bellingham. His research focus is the relationship between language experience and children’s understanding of the mind.


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