Learning and Babies

16 Sep

I recently peeked at the first few chapters of Gopnik, Meltzoff, and Kuhl’s The Sceintist in the Crib, a review of their research into early childhood cognitive development.

It’s fun stuff.

Ends up, according to Gopnik et. al., that babies are not awash in a sea of undifferentiated sensory phenomena of all sorts, unable to focus in any way, conceptually or visually, and not knowing the difference between a sack of potatoes and “skin-bags” (otherwise known as people). Nor are they Freudian expressions of all the unrestrained psychoses that adults have learned to sublimate. Neither is every behavior they show caused either by animal instinct or gas.

Gopnik’s experiments show that from birth infants are putting intelligence to use, understanding more of the world than we would expect, making hypotheses about the rest, and systematically testing and adjusting those hypotheses. They are preprogrammed to recognize people, they can imitate facial expressions even immediately after birth, and they even understand things surprising well, being conditioned to look for the edges of things, knowing rules like “things get smaller at distance,” and being able to mystically associate the feeling of something (say, a bumpy pacifier) with its visual representation. This seemingly intentional quest for knowledge on babies’ part and their make-assumption-and-test method is more like a scientist’s approach than anything else (hence the title of the book).

Gopnik suggests infant early childhood learning consists of three interconnected parts, each more substantial than we would have thought: innate knowledge (children come with a lot more information than we ever knew); a drive to learn and an intelligence actively engaged in learning (as opposed to conventional assumption that their mind is just a kind of passive mushiness); and people programmed to provide the right kind of tutelage. On this last point, Gopnik notes out how our own innate ability to make nonsense sounds as we “flirt” with infants inperceptibly shifts to what she calls a “sportscaster’s play by play” by the time the child is a toddler–“that’s a chair, Johnny!” It ends up even the older sibling plays a key instructive role in his or her ambivalent relationship with the infant.

That three-pronged system–innate skills, intelligence seeking to learn, and helpful tutelage–starts to feel like a kind of ecosystem of enculturation hardwired into people, kicking in almost automatically, and more complex and thoughtful than we could have devised had we tried.

In any event, I find it all inspiring, and I suspect somewhere in that natural ecosystem is a model for successful learning later in life, should we choose to adopt it. (Gropnik may make this point herself later in the book–I’ve only read the first 3 chapters so far.)  We’ve already apparently extrapolated the entire scientific enterprise from the intuitive approach babies take to their confusing world; so there may be other nuggets of worth in there somewhere.

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