Baby (and Man) as Scientist

The importance of ‘why?’

Jean Piaget described children as “little scientists”, seeing them as active thinkers developing knowledge through constant theorising and experimentation in the world.  In her book The Philosophical Baby, Alison Gopnik expands this idea based on latest research arguing powerfully that one of the reasons for human success is the extended period of immaturity that has been allowed through the development of social groups, which allows us to be ‘smarter’ when we finally grow up by also extending our time for learning (and theorising). The book reminded me very much of my earliest encounters with psychology applying the theories of George Kelly (who described man as a scientist too).

Alison Gopnik also argues that the Western obsession with earlier and earlier rote learning and testing (in order to pass exams and get into the right schools) is actually making us dumber, by removing the very advantage that evolution has given us.  The importance of play and extended immaturity is exactly that it gives us breathing space for more adaptive learning through trial and error, keeping our minds open to possibilities and creatively building connections which help us build better and broader mental models of the world around us.

Recent results, particularly in the US, confirm that more regimented learning and greater focus on highly structured learning, reduce creativity and mental flexibility later in life.  We become better at passing specific educational tests, but worse at applying our skills to new domains and problems .

Creating the future

Our early development is perhaps the only way we can hope to escape the constraints of evolution, by creating a future based on more positive feedback loops, creating a positive cycle of learning between our children and those around them (one provocative description of children is as ‘R&D for humans’). Even very young infants (one year old) can outsmart the best computer in the world in terms of facial and object recognition (even with still developing perceptual systems) and their ability to understand causality and intentionality as they develop puts the lie to the idea that our conceptualisation of the world relies on language.

Developing such ideas requires abstract thinking (much of which happens prior to language development), including even theories of love in one interesting chapter of the book (building on John Bowlby’s attachment theory).  Such counterfactual thinking is important in building knowledge of the world, using our imaginative capacities to mentally test ideas and theories even when we are not able to experiment in the real world (mental rehearsal is claimed to be two-thirds as effective as real practice in developing skills).  Given that our imagination is able to help us empathise by mirroring the experiences of others, it is not surprising that we can also imagine hypothetical scenarios and imagine how we would experience them.

Prediction is imagination

Our ability to create mental maps and models is the basis of our intelligence according to Jeff Hawkins (a computer scientist as well as neuroscientist).  He argues that our brain is a purely a massive pattern recognition system, and the more data it has, the better the predictions.  Our behaviour reflects our database of previous experiences, and the brain is nothing more than a sophisticated memory bank.  We do not make predictions by ‘calculating’ likely outcomes (Homo Economicus never existed), but by referencing the situation against our memory (especially our emotions and the contextual cues in the environment).  Whatever we find in memory is then used to predict likely outcomes, and hence directs our behaviour based on our expectations of how to maximise those outcomes to our advantage.

For example, we are all incredibly good at recognising faces, whatever distance, angle and shade they appear in.  This is because our memory holds a ‘map’ of the key features of the faces we know, and the relationship between those features, enabling us to ‘instantly’ recognise any familiar face (far quicker than we can recognise other objects).  Our memory doesn’t hold detail, which in any case would change every time we saw the face (colour, depth, shade, lightness, size, orientation change all the time).  Our memory looks at the overall patterns and checks them against its database of experiences.

Thus we become smarter by having a richer database of experiences in our memory.  The more we are able to create a rich conceptualisation of the world in early life, creating a rich network of experiences and references, the smarter we become.  Alison Gopnik is right: give your children enough space to experience and theorise, especially with strong and positive feedback loops, and the richer their mental world will become.  Smart adults are created through greater freedom to play as immature infants. Speaking of infants, check out this review about the most accurate baby thermometer.

Free and playful childhoods are the key to making better adults!

The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us about Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life by Alison Gopnik (2010)

On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins (2004)

A Theory of Personality: The Psychology of Personal Constructs by George Kelly (1955)

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