What Do Babies Think?

May 3, 2013
Originally published on September 4, 2015 9:00 am

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Unstoppable Learning.

About Alison Gopnik's TED Talk

Alison Gopnik's research explores the sophisticated intelligence-gathering and decision-making that babies are doing when they play. She offers a glimpse into the minds of babies and young children, to show how much and how fast they learn.

About Alison Gopnik

What's it really like to see through the eyes of a child? Are babies and young children just empty, irrational vessels to be formed into little adults, until they become the perfect images of ourselves?

On the contrary, argues Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. The author of The Philosophical Baby, The Scientist in the Crib and other influential books on cognitive development, Gopnik presents evidence that babies and children are conscious of far more than we give them credit for. They engage every sense and spend every waking moment discovering, filing away, analyzing and acting on information about how the world works.

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So imagine just how much activity is happening in your brain in those nine months, right? Well, that may be nothing compared to what comes next, which brings us to Alison Gopnik.

ALISON GOPNIK: I'm a professor in the department of psychology at University of California Berkeley, and an affiliate professor of philosophy at Berkeley, as well.

RAZ: And ...

GOPNIK: And I study babies and young children and what they can tell us about what it means to be human. After all, we're just babies and young children that have been around a little bit longer.

RAZ: Yeah. We're like giant babies, and not as easy to like.

GOPNIK: Not as cute and probably not as smart either.

RAZ: Yeah, really?


RAZ: Now, when it comes to understanding a baby's brain, Alison Gopnik says we are in the midst of a scientific revolution, and when she started her TED Talk, she pointed to a photo of a baby.


GOPNIK: What is going on in this baby's mind? If you'd asked people this 30 years ago, most people, including psychologists, would've said that this baby was irrational, illogical, egocentric, that he couldn't take the perspective of another person, or understand cause and effect.

That was the picture of children for a really long time, both in science and philosophy, that somehow children were adults with pieces missing.

RAZ: And, now? She says the minds of babies are like the minds of ...


GOPNIK: The most brilliant scientists.

RAZ: The most brilliant scientists.

GOPNIK: Even these tiny babies are already doing a lot of the kinds of thinking and learning that we think of as being the learning of very sophisticated scientists. If you just, pretty much, take a random 15-month-old, just sit and watch them for 10 minutes and count out how many experiments, how much thinking you see going on, and it will put the most brilliant scientist to shame.

RAZ: What would they do in just a matter of 10 minutes?

GOPNIK: Well, let me give you the example of going for walk with Oggie, my grandson.


GOPNIK: What does Oggie do? Well, the first thing that he does is he sees that there's a little brick path that goes off to one side and actually, if you climb up, you can get up one step of that brick path.


GOPNIK: So then, he tries to get up the step and then he tries it again, and then he tries it again. But then, he notices that there's actually some flowers ...


GOPNIK: ... really, actually dandelions, but flowers, as far as he's concerned, that are off in the grass. So then, he has to lean over and try and see, are those flowers the same as the flowers that he's seen before? And can you actually blow on them the same way you blow on other dandelions? Then he'll suddenly say, plane? Plane?


GOPNIK: And he hears the plane that's way up out of the - in the distant corner that I haven't even paid any attention to.


GOPNIK: He's observing and experimenting and trying to come to grips with all of these things that we just take for granted because we learned about them when we were 15-month-olds. And if you just look at children's exploratory play, just their, you know, getting into everything, it turns out that they're actually getting into everything in a way that is systematic and will tell them about how things work out there in the world.


GOPNIK: I think babies and children are actually more conscious than we are as adults. Adult attention and consciousness look kind of like a spotlight. Our consciousness of that thing that we're attending to becomes extremely bright and vivid, and everything else sort of goes dark. If we look at babies and young children, we see something very different. Seem to have more of a lantern of consciousness than a spotlight of consciousness. So babies and young children are very bad at narrowing down to just one thing, but they're very good at taking in lots of information from lots of different sources at once. And if you actually look in their brains, you see that they're flooded with these neurotransmitters that are really good inducing learning and plasticity. And the inhibitory parts haven't come on yet.

RAZ: But how do we really know they're learning all this stuff? It's obviously not easy to ask a baby. So Alison Gopnik started to think about a way to approach it.

GOPNIK: Maybe we could ask children about what they think about other people by using some very, very simple facts about little babies, which is that they like to eat some things and they don't like to eat other things. They really like goldfish crackers, for example, and they really don't like raw broccoli. So we thought, well, maybe we could take this very basic fact and find a way to ask whether they understood what somebody else wanted.

RAZ: So Alison tried this out with a bunch of babies, including this one, Nathan.


GOPNIK: What we did first of all was take a little bit of food from each bowl ...


GOPNIK: Yeah, that's broccoli. And what's that? That's crackers.

And make a kind of exaggerated version of either a disgusted face or a happy face.


GOPNIK: Mmm. Broccoli. Mmm.

And, oh yuck.


GOPNIK: Ew, yuck.



GOPNIK: I don't like crackers.

And then, give the baby the two bowls of food and say ...


GOPNIK: Could I have some?

Can you give me some?


GOPNIK: Could you give me some of what I like?

When you liked the broccoli instead of the crackers, the 18-month-olds would actually give the broccoli.


GOPNIK: Thank you, Nathan. More? Thank you so much.

So they seem to still think, okay, I like crackers, but this other person, strange though it may seem, this other person likes broccoli. And if they like broccoli, I should give them broccoli.

RAZ: Which means that they're starting to become empathetic.

GOPNIK: Well, in a way, they were going beyond empathy. They were actually being altruistic. They were actually taking into account the perspective of the other person. Now one of the interesting things is that the 15-month-olds actually didn't do that. The 15-month-olds only gave the crackers. So it seemed as if they had somehow learned to do that between the time they were 15 months and the time they were 18 months.

RAZ: But when you think about it, 18 months, I mean, that's a long time, especially when you compare us to other mammals.

GOPNIK: Why would we have this long period when we're completely incompetent and when our parents have to put so much time and energy into taking care of us? I mean, it's kind of an evolutionary paradox. One idea, which I think you actually see across the animal kingdom, is that that early period of apparent uselessness is there because it gives us this capacity to explore. Childhood is a separate evolutionary stage of what it is to be a human being.


GOPNIK: We have bigger brains relative to our bodies by far than any other animal. We're smarter, we're more flexible, we can learn more, we survive in more different environments, and our babies and children are dependent on us for much longer than the babies of any other species. My son is 23, and at least until they're 23, we're still popping those worms into those little open mouths.

RAZ: Alison, when does it end? When does that, like, extreme phase of learning just stop?

GOPNIK: Well, I don't think it ever stops. That's kind of the good news. So of course, if we stayed like my adorable 15-month-old grandson forever, then we'd need to have parents and grandparents taking care of us all the time. That would not actually be a functional way to be an adult. Sometimes, I say going to the 7-11 to get a pint of milk with Oggie is like going for a walk with William Blake. Suddenly, the amazingness and awesomeness of the universe in the grain of sand is vivid to you as an adult, and if you've ever lived with an incredibly creative, genius, romantic poet, then you might think that there are some drawbacks to that as well as advantages. So we do eventually have to grow up.


GOPNIK: Now it's good to be a grown-up. I don't want to say too much about how wonderful babies are. It's good to be a grown-up. We can do things like tie our shoelaces and cross the street by ourselves, and it makes sense that we put a lot of effort into actually making babies think like adults do. But if what we want is to have open-mindedness, open learning, imagination, creativity, innovation, maybe at least some of the time, we should be getting the adults to start thinking more like children.


RAZ: That's Alison Gopnik. You can find her full talk at TED.NPR.org.

RAZ: Last night, I was putting my four-year-old to bed and he just said, daddy, can you tell me everything about the world? And I said, everything? He said, yeah, can you tell me everything about the world? Our show today, unstoppable learning. I'm Guy Raz and this is the TED Radio Hour, from NPR. Stay with us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.