Friday, December 10, 2010

What's it like to be a baby?

I just started reading The Philosophical Baby by developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik. A while back I read an article on her research and was intrigued enough to get her book. In it she surveys recent findings in the fields of psychology, neuroscience, and yes, philosophy which help us get inside the head of those mysterious baby humans. Mysterious, yet familiar, since we all were babies once, and who we are as an adult is somehow connected with the experiences of early childhood; even though we can't remember them. Here are two excerpts from the introduction.

Children are, at once, deeply familiar and profoundly alien. Sometimes we feel that they are just like us—and sometimes they seem to live in a completely different world. Their minds seem drastically limited; they know so much less than we do. And yet long before they can read or write they have extraordinary powers of imagination and creativity, and long before they go to school they have remarkable learning abilities. Their experience of the world sometimes seems narrow and concrete; at other times it looks far more wide-ranging than adult experience. (p. 4)

Babies' brains seem to have special qualities that make them especially well suited for imagination and learning. Babies' brains are actually more highly connected than adult brains; more neural pathways are available to babies than adults. As we grow older and experience more, our brains "prune out" the weaker, less used pathways and strengthen the ones that are used more often. If you looked at a map of the baby's brain it would look like old Paris, with lots of winding, interconnected little streets. In the adult brain those little streets have been replaced by fewer but more efficient neural boulevards, capable of much more traffic. (pp. 11-12)

Gopnik goes on to explain the neuroscientific reason for this difference. One of the parts of the brain that take longest to develop is the prefrontal cortex -- perhaps not fully developed until we reach our twenties. This is the part of the brain that allows us to "inhibit" other parts of the brain in order to block out distractions and focus on the complex tasks of adulthood. While the characteristics of prefrontal immaturity can sometimes be maddening to adults, it's what equips babies for the prodigious feats of learning and imagination that "growing up" requires. Fascinating stuff! I'll probably be posting more from this book.

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