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[xmca] Your Baby Is Smarter Than You Think



NY Times Op-Ed Contributor

Your Baby Is Smarter Than You Think 


Published: August 15, 2009 

Berkeley, Calif. 

GENERATIONS of psychologists and philosophers have believed that babies and
young children were basically defective adults - irrational, egocentric and
unable to think logically. The philosopher John Locke saw a baby's mind as a
blank slate, and the psychologist William James thought they lived in a
"blooming, buzzing confusion." Even today, a cursory look at babies and
young children leads many to conclude that there is not much going on.

New studies, however, demonstrate that babies and very young children know,
observe, explore, imagine and learn more than we would ever have thought
possible. In some ways, they are smarter than adults.

Three recent experiments show that even the youngest children have
sophisticated and powerful learning abilities. Last year, Fei Xu and Vashti
Garcia at the University of British Columbia proved that babies could
understand probabilities. Eight-month-old babies were shown a box full of
mixed-up Ping-Pong balls: mostly white but with some red ones mixed in. The
babies were more surprised, and looked longer and more intently at the
experimenter when four red balls and one white ball out of the box - a
possible, yet improbable outcome - than when four white balls and a red one
were produced. 

In 2007, Laura Schulz and Elizabeth Baraff Bonawitz at M.I.T. demonstrated
that when young children play, they are also exploring cause and effect.
Preschoolers were introduced to a toy that had two levers and a duck and a
puppet that popped up. One group was shown that when you pressed one lever,
the duck appeared and when you pressed the other, the puppet popped up. The
second group observed that when you pressed both levers at once, both
objects popped up, but they never got a chance to see what the levers did
separately, which left mysterious the causal relation between the levers and
the pop-up objects. Then the experimenter gave the children the toys to play
with. The children in the first group played with the toy much less than the
children in the second group did. When the children already knew how the toy
worked, they were less interested in exploring it. But the children in the
second group spontaneously played with the toy, and just by playing around,
they figured out how it worked. 

In 2007 in my lab at Berkeley, Tamar Kushnir and I discovered that
preschoolers can use probabilities to learn how things work and that this
lets them imagine new possibilities. We put a yellow block and a blue block
on a machine repeatedly. The blocks were likely but not certain to make the
machine light up. The yellow block made the machine light up two out of
three times; the blue block made it light up only two out of six times. 

Then we gave the children the blocks and asked them to light up the machine.
These children, who couldn't yet add or subtract, were more likely to put
the high-probability yellow block, rather than the blue one, on the machine.

We also did the same experiment, but instead of putting the high-probability
block on the machine, we held it up over the machine and the machine lit up.
Children had never seen a block act this way, and at the start of the
experiment, they didn't think it could. But after seeing good evidence, they
were able to imagine the peculiar possibility that blocks have remote
powers. These astonishing capacities for statistical reasoning, experimental
discovery and probabilistic logic allow babies to rapidly learn all about
the particular objects and people surrounding them.

Sadly, some parents are likely to take the wrong lessons from these
experiments and conclude that they need programs and products that will make
their babies even smarter. Many think that babies, like adults, should learn
in a focused, planned way. So parents put their young children in
academic-enrichment classes or use flashcards to get them to recognize the
alphabet. Government programs like No Child Left Behind urge preschools to
be more like schools, with instruction in specific skills. 

But babies' intelligence, the research shows, is very different from that of
adults and from the kind of intelligence we usually cultivate in school.
Schoolwork revolves around focus and planning. We set objectives and goals
for children, with an emphasis on skills they should acquire or information
they should know. Children take tests to prove that they have absorbed a
specific set of skills and facts and have not been distracted by other

This approach may work for children over the age of 5 or so. But babies and
very young children are terrible at planning and aiming for precise goals.
When we say that preschoolers can't pay attention, we really mean that they
can't not pay attention: they have trouble focusing on just one event and
shutting out all the rest. This has led us to underestimate babies in the
past. But the new research tells us that babies can be rational without
being goal-oriented. 

Babies are captivated by the most unexpected events. Adults, on the other
hand, focus on the outcomes that are the most relevant to their goals. In a
well-known experiment, adults saw a video of several people tossing a ball
to one another. The experimenter told them to count how many passes
particular people made. In the midst of this, a person in a gorilla suit
walked slowly through the middle of the video. A surprising number of
adults, intent on counting, didn't even seem to notice the unexpected

Adults focus on objects that will be most useful to them. But as the lever
study demonstrated, children play with the objects that will teach them the
most. In our study, 4-year-olds imagined new possibilities based on just a
little data. Adults rely more on what they already know. Babies aren't
trying to learn one particular skill or set of facts; instead, they are
drawn to anything new, unexpected or informative.

Part of the explanation for these differing approaches can be found in the
brain. The young brain is remarkably plastic and flexible. Brains work
because neurons are connected to one another, allowing them to communicate.
Baby brains have many more neural connections than adult brains. But they
are much less efficient. Over time, we prune away the connections we don't
use, and the remaining ones become faster and more automatic. Moreover, the
prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls the directed,
planned, focused kind of intelligence, is exceptionally late to mature, and
may not take its final shape until our early 20s. 

In fact, our mature brain seems to be programmed by our childhood
experiences - we plan based on what we've learned as children. Very young
children imagine and explore a vast array of possibilities. As they grow
older and absorb more evidence, certain possibilities become much more
likely and more useful. They then make decisions based on this selective
information and become increasingly reluctant to give those ideas up and try
something new. Computer scientists talk about the difference between
exploring and exploiting - a system will learn more if it explores many
possibilities, but it will be more effective if it simply acts on the most
likely one. Babies explore; adults exploit.

Each kind of intelligence has benefits and drawbacks. Focus and planning get
you to your goal more quickly but may also lock in what you already know,
closing you off to alternative possibilities. We need both blue-sky
speculation and hard-nosed planning. Babies and young children are designed
to explore, and they should be encouraged to do so.

The learning that babies and young children do on their own, when they
carefully watch an unexpected outcome and draw new conclusions from it,
ceaselessly manipulate a new toy or imagine different ways that the world
might be, is very different from schoolwork. Babies and young children can
learn about the world around them through all sorts of real-world objects
and safe replicas, from dolls to cardboard boxes to mixing bowls, and even
toy cellphones and computers. Babies can learn a great deal just by
exploring the ways bowls fit together or by imitating a parent talking on
the phone. (Imagine how much money we can save on "enriching" toys and

But what children observe most closely, explore most obsessively and imagine
most vividly are the people around them. There are no perfect toys; there is
no magic formula. Parents and other caregivers teach young children by
paying attention and interacting with them naturally and, most of all, by
just allowing them to play. 

Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology at Berkeley and the author of
"The Philosophical Baby."


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