The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind


In this book we tell the story of the new science of children’s minds. Why? Understanding children has led us to understand ourselves in a new way. The new research shows that babies and young children know and learn more about the world than we could ever have imagined. They think, draw conclusions, make predictions, look for explanations, and even do experiments. Scientists and children belong together because they are the best learners in the universe. And that means that ordinary adults also have more powerful learning abilities than we might have thought. Grown-ups, after all, are all ex-children and potential scientists.

The Rabbit Hole is written by Blas Moros. To support, sign up for the newsletter, become a patron, and/or join The Latticework. Original Design by Thilo Konzok.

Key Takeaways
  1. The new developmental research tells us that Baby 0.0 must have some pretty special features. First, it must already have a great deal of knowledge about the world built into its original program. The experiments we will describe show that even newborns already know a great deal about people and objects and language. But more significant, babies and children have powerful learning mechanisms that allow them to spontaneously revise, reshape, and restructure their knowledge. This is, notoriously, the great weakness of existing computers. They are terrific at solving well-defined problems, they are not so hot at learning, and they are really awful at spontaneously changing how they learn. Finally, the babies have the universe’s best system of tech support: mothers. Grown-ups are themselves designed to behave in ways that will allow babies to learn. This support plays such a powerful role in the babies’ development, in fact, that it may make sense to think of it as part of the system itself. The human baby’s computational system is really a network, held together by language and love, instead of by optic fiber.
  2. Just as everything about our minds is caused by our brains, everything about our brains is ultimately caused by our evolutionary history. That means, though, that evolution can select learning strategies and cultural abilities just as it selects reflexes and instincts. For human beings, nurture is our nature. The capacity for culture is part of our biology, and the drive to learn is our most important and central instinct. The new developmental research suggests that our unique evolutionary trick, our central adaptation, our greatest weapon in the struggle for survival, is precisely our dazzling ability to learn when we are babies and to teach when we are grown-ups.
  3. We survive by being able to learn how to behave in almost any ecological niche, and by being able to construct our own niches.
  4. The advantage of learning is that it allows you to find out about your particular environment. The disadvantage is that until you do find out, you don’t know what to do; you’re helpless. We may have two evolutionary gifts: great abilities to learn about the world around us and a long protected period in which to deploy those abilities.
  5. For Piaget, learning was as natural as eating. This idea is the second element in the new developmental science. For Vygotsky, adults, quite unconsciously, adjusted their behavior to give children just the information they needed to solve the problems that were most important to them. Children used adults to discover the particularities of their culture and society. Just as Piaget saw that learning was innate, Vygotsky saw that culture was natural.
  6. Success in science is often a matter of finding the right analogies, and the computer gave us a new one. The Big Idea, the conceptual breakthrough of the last thirty years of psychology, is that the brain is a kind of computer. That’s the basis of the new field of cognitive science. Of course, we don’t know just what kind of computer the brain is. Certainly it’s very different from any of the actual computers we have now.
  7. The ancient problems of knowledge are all fascinating, but only the problem of Other Minds is gut-wrenching. We dedicate most of our waking life to deciphering the minds of others.
  8. There are three elements in nature’s solution to the problem of knowledge: innate knowledge, powerful learning abilities, and unconscious tuition from adults.
  9. It’s a myth that newborn babies can’t see, but babies are very nearsighted by adult standards, and unlike adults, they have difficulty changing their focus to suit both near and far objects. What this means is that objects about a foot away are in sharp focus and objects nearer or farther are blurred. Of course, that’s just the distance from a newborn’s face to the face of the person who is holding him or her. Babies seem designed to see the people who love them more clearly than anything else.
  10. Babies spontaneously coordinate their own expressions, gestures, and voices with the expressions, gestures, and voices of other people. Flirting is largely a matter of timing.
  11. One-year-old babies know that they will see something by looking where other people point; they know what they should do to something by watching what other people do; they know how they should feel about something by seeing how other people feel. The babies can use other people to figure out the world. In a very simple way, these one-year-olds are already participating in a culture. They already can take advantage of the discoveries of previous generations.
  12. The terrible twos seem to involve a systematic exploration of that idea, almost a kind of experimental research program. Toddlers are systematically testing the dimensions on which their desires and the desires of others may be in conflict. The grave look is directed at you because you and your reaction, rather than the lamp cord itself, are the really interesting thing. If the child is a budding psychologist, we parents are the laboratory rats. It may be some comfort to know that these toddlers don’t really want to drive us crazy, they just want to understand how we work.
  13. Just as it’s important to infer the nature of other people’s minds in order to survive, it’s also important to infer the nature of the physical world.
  14. We look for the underlying, hidden causes of events. We try to figure out the nature of things. It’s not just that we human beings can do this; we need to do it. We seem to have a kind of explanatory drive, like our drive for food or sex. When we’re presented with a puzzle, a mystery, a hint of a pattern, something that doesn’t quite make sense, we work until we find a solution.
  15. Babies are similarly fascinated by causal relations between objects. Babies in the ribbon-and-mobile experiments actually get bored after a while with the spectacle of the mobile moving, but they don’t get bored with the sensation of their own power.
  16. We used to think that babies learned words first and that words helped them sort out which sounds were critical to their language. But this research turned the argument around. Babies master the sounds of their language first, and that makes the words easier to learn.
  17. Why do we do it? Do we produce motherese simply to get the babies’ attention? (It certainly does that.) Do we do it just to convey affection and comfort? Or does motherese have a more focused purpose? It turns out that motherese is more than just a sweet siren song we use to draw our babies to us. Motherese seems to actually help babies solve the Language problem. Motherese sentences are shorter and simpler than sentences directed at adults. Moreover, grown-ups speaking to babies often repeat the same thing over and over with slight variations. (“You are a pretty girl, aren’t you? Aren’t you a pretty girl? Pretty, pretty girl.”) These characteristics of motherese may help children to figure out the words and grammar of their language.
  18. One odd and interesting thing we know about these machines is that all the big ones start out small. The little machines actually turn into the big ones. If we want to understand the basic mechanisms that make these devices tick, perhaps we should start out small, too.
  19. We’ll summarize this big picture by elaborating on the three ideas we’ve presented in previous chapters.
    1. Foundations. Babies begin by translating information from the world into rich, complex, abstract, coherent representations. Those representations allow babies to interpret their experience in particular ways and to make predictions about new events. Babies are born with powerful programs already booted up and ready to run.
    2. Learning. Their experiences lead babies and young children to enrich, modify, revise, reshape, reorganize, and sometimes replace their initial representations, and so to end up with other, quite different rich, complex, abstract, coherent representations. As children take in more input from the world, their rules for translating, manipulating, and rearranging that input also change. Rather than having a single program, they have a succession of progressively more powerful and accurate programs. Children themselves play an active role in this process by exploring and experimenting. Children reprogram themselves.
    3. Other people. Other people, especially the people who take care of children, naturally act in ways that promote and influence the changes in the children’s representations and rules. Mostly they do this quite unconsciously. Other people are programmed to help children reprogram themselves.
  20. The philosopher Otto Neurath compared knowledge to a boat we rebuild as we sail in it. To keep afloat during his thirty years of wandering, Ulysses had to constantly repair and rebuild the boat he lived in. Each new storm or calm meant an alteration in the design. By the end of the journey hardly anything remained of the original vessel. That is an apt metaphor for our view of cognitive development. We begin with many beliefs about the world, and those beliefs allow us to understand what’s going on around us and to act—they let us navigate our way around. But as we do, we get new information that makes us change our beliefs and therefore understand and act in new ways.
  21. It may seem to us that we make up theories of the world because we want explanations, just as it seems to us that we have sex because we want orgasms. From the evolutionary point of view, though, the relationship is the reverse. Orgasms guarantee that we will keep trying to have sex, and our joy in explanation guarantees that we will keep trying to construct better, truer theories of the world. Getting the world right, like having sex, gives us a long-term evolutionary advantage. Drives and emotions turn those long-term advantages into short-term motivations. Studying babies makes us realize that the biological computers on this planet differ from the man-made computers in this regard, as well. They don’t just compute, learn, reason, and know. They are driven to do all these things and are designed to take intense pleasure in doing so.
  22. Imitation is the motor for culture. By imitating what the particular adults around them do, young children learn how to behave in the particular social world—the particular family or community or culture—they find themselves in. They can draw a bow or dress a doll or even learn such bizarre cultural rituals as pulling a piece of toothed plastic through their hair every morning and rubbing a stiff brush against their teeth every night.
  23. The second important thing about the influence of other people is that the most significant behavior seems almost entirely unintentional. Parents don’t deliberately set out to imitate their babies or to speak motherese; it’s just what comes naturally. Our instinctive behaviors toward babies and babies’ instinctive behaviors toward us combine to enable the babies to learn as much as they do. The third important thing about the influence of other people is that it seems to work in concert with children’s own learning abilities. Newborns will imitate facial expressions, but only much older babies will imitate actions on objects, like touching their forehead to the box. Babies won’t imitate complex actions they don’t understand themselves.
  24. Two things emerge from all these studies. The adult brain is a highly specialized device that responds specifically to specific kinds of stimulation. Particular parts of the brain, even individual cells, are designed to respond to information from the outside world in particular ways, sending that information off to other parts of the brain. In that sense the brain is like a classical computer. The brain is also, however, a dynamic and active system. Its parts are constantly interacting with one another, and often many parts of the brain and certainly many, many cells are simultaneously involved in processing even a simple piece of information. Unlike most computers, the brain has no single place where all the decisions are made or where all the information is stored.
  25. Everything a baby sees, hears, tastes, touches, and smells influences the way the brain gets hooked up.
  26. This early research with animals established an important point—a brain can physically expand and contract and change depending on experience.
  27. One of the other surprises of recent studies on the brain’s plasticity is that social factors can dramatically alter how animals learn. As we saw, white-crowned sparrows can typically learn their species’ song from a tape recording between days twenty and fifty. However, this critical period seems less rigid in the right social context. The sparrows can learn after they are fifty days old if they are exposed to a live tutor, a real bird singing the song in front of them. Interacting with another bird helps the baby bird learn.
  28. Moreover, the representations that result from learning influence how the brain processes new experiences. Experience changes the brain, but then those very changes alter the way new experience affects the brain. The sequence of development seems very important: choosing one path early on may heavily influence which paths will be available later.
  29. One benefit of knowing the science is a kind of protective skepticism. It should make us deeply suspicious of any enterprise that offers a formula for making babies smarter or teaching them more, from flash cards to Mozart tapes to Better Baby Institutes. Everything we know about babies suggests that these artificial interventions are at best useless and at worst distractions from the normal interaction between grown-ups and babies. Babies are already as smart as they can be, they know what they need to know, and they are very effective and selective in getting the kinds of information they need. They are designed to learn about the real world that surrounds them, and they learn by playing with the things in that world, most of all by playing with the people who love them. Not the least advantage of knowing about science is that it immunizes us from pseudoscience.
  30. Children, in particular, have suffered a grievous decline in just the goods that are most important to them: adult time, energy, and company. The child-rearing work that men and women and an extended family did a hundred years ago, and that women did thirty years ago, has to be done somehow by someone. The scientific moral is not that we need experts to tell us what to do with our children. What we need are the time and space and opportunity to do what we would do anyway, and that’s just what we are losing. Grandparents and uncles and aunts have also disappeared from children’s lives just when they are most needed, and grandchildren and nieces and nephews have sadly disappeared from our lives. Perhaps we will construct institutions that allow people whose own children have grown up, or who don’t have children, to be involved with other people’s children.
  31. When we look attentively, carefully, and thoughtfully at the things around us, they invariably turn out to be more interesting, more orderly, more complex, more strange, and more wonderful than we would ever have imagined. That’s what happened when Kepler looked carefully at the stars, when Darwin looked at finches, when Marie Curie looked at pitchblende ore. And it’s also what happened when Jane Austen looked at a provincial village and Proust looked at a madeleine cookie, when Vermeer looked at a girl making lace and Juan Gris looked at a café table.
What I got out of it
  1. Babies are born knowing a great deal and nature has designed adults to teach babies, as much as it has designed babies to learn. Don't be seduced by new technologies, adult time, energy, and company are probably the most effective approaches to teaching children

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