Big Think Interview with Alison Gopnik

Developmental Cognitive Psychologist
A conversation with the Professor of Psychology and Affiliate Professor of Philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley.
  • Transcript


Question: What is your earliest childhood memory?

Alison Gopnik: Well, that's a good question. It's probably sometime when I was about two. I grew up in this crazy Bohemian family in Philadelphia and we actually lived in a public housing project. So definitely one of my earliest memories is having my crazy Bohemian mother making strudel on the table in this public housing project and having all of the children running around naked underneath the table, eating the scraps from the strudel. So that was a fairly typical scene in our household growing up.

Question: How specifically do you study babies’ thoughts?

Alison Gopnik: Right. Well that's a good question. I think part of the reason why people got it so wrong about babies for so long was because as adults when we want to find out what someone's thinking, we ask them and get them to tell us. And that's something that babies and even young children are very bad at doing. So to figure out what babies and young children think, we have to figure out ways to ask them in their language and not ours. So, for infants, that means actually looking at what they do—what actions they perform, rather than what they say. And even for the three and four year olds that I study a lot it means getting them to say choose between two alternatives or actually do something rather than you ask a three year old, "What are you thinking?" and you get this beautiful stream of consciousness monologue about their birthday party and horses and all sorts of things.

So what we have to do is really rely on actions rather than words; get them to produce actions and also give them information about the problem we are presenting in terms of real physical objects in their immediate environment. So, for example, we've been doing very exciting work about babies and young children's understanding of statistics. Any grown-up that has taken a statistics class will tell you, grown-ups are terrible [at statistics]. In fact, Danny Kahneman got the Nobel Prize for showing how bad grown-ups at explicitly thinking about probabilities but when we take three year olds, unfortunately, we would never do anything as lunatic as ask them about probabilities, but if we actually give them a real machine that operates according to probabilistic principles and just get them to operate the machine then you suddenly realize, "Oh, wait a minute. They actually are implicitly understanding all of the things like conditional probability."

Question: Can babies’ minds teach us about mental disorders such as schizophrenia?

Alison Gopnik: It's always a very big leap to go from any kind of science to clinical cases because clinical cases are so complicated, but I do think there may be some evidence now that there is a kind of continuum between schizophrenia and, say, creativity. So schizophrenia seems to be a kind of occupational hazard of poets for instance that there seems to be some connections between those things and those seem to be connected with some of the neurological phenomena that we also see with very young babies. Essentially, not having a lot of top down control—typically, for the way the adult brain works, the aspect of the adult brain that adults are most interested in, is that the prefrontal region, which is sort of the brain's Head Office where the chief executives are. A lot of what goes on in adults is that [the prefrontal region] shuts down big enormous other parts of the brain. One of the things that happens when you dream, for instance, is that kind of really ferocious control gets lifted and there's a little evidence that a least with some kinds of mental disorders and with adult creativity and in infancy. Some of what's happening is that that ferocious control is disappearing, which is a good thing for babies, not a good thing for adults who have to find their way around the world.

Question: Given that babies are hyper-sensitive, do you worry they carry lifelong mental scars from unanesthetized surgery?

Alison Gopnik: Nah. One of the things that we've discovered about babies is that part of what makes them such great learners is that they're extremely what neuroscientists call plastic. Their minds are capable of changing. And that also means that they're tremendously resilient. So we have a lot of evidence, even if you look at say the Romanian orphans. These poor babies who were brought up in just terrible circumstances. Lying in cribs, just sort of barely being kept alive, but no one ever interacting with me. When they were three, they looked terribly, terribly damaged but when they got adopted by British families with some exceptions but for the most part most of those babies turned out perfectly well. So there is tremendous resilience in the system and when there is damage it's usually because there is an interaction between early environments and later environments. So most babies who are growing up in bad circumstances don't have the luck that the remaining orphans had of being plucked out and now being put in very good circumstances.

Question: If you could have an adult conversation with an infant, what would you ask?

Alison Gopnik: Yeah, that's a good question. So John Flavell, who was the great developmental psychologists of the 20th century, said that he would give everything that he possessed to have just three minutes inside of the head of a baby and I feel that way, too. The trouble is, I probably wouldn't be able to understand a lot of what they were saying, even if they could say it. So I think I'd want to ask them, "What's it like?" "What are you seeing at this moment?" "How many things do you know about?" "What do you think about the adults around you?" But my suspicion is that even if they could talk, probably part of the reason why they aren't talking yet is because what they would say would be in a language that I couldn't quite understand.

Question: At what age do babies switch from wide to narrow focus attention?

Alison Gopnik: Well it seems as if there is a really big switch between about five and six. And of course, it's funny because in our culture we talk about that age group as preschoolers versus school-aged children. Of course, school is a very recent invention, but if you look across lots of cultures something happens around six. So the babies say will move from the mother's quarters to the children's quarters. Kids used to start becoming apprentices when they were about seven. Losing your first tooth seems to be a big marker of this transition. And I think what happens is that that kind of transition, and of course it's starting at four or five and then continuing, is really a transition from a creature that's mostly designed to do this very broad-based learning to a creature that's starting to develop the specific skills that are going to important as an adult.

So by the time you get to a seven, eight, nine year olds they can actually work. I mean, they can actually do things. They can actually do things that are productive and helpful. And they're starting to get more narrow, more specialized. So our culture really values a very, very narrow focus of attention, that's what we teach kids to do in school. In other cultures, what they'll do is teach kids to do things like shift attention from one thing to another very easily. The important thing is that in all cultures you go from this early very, very wide ranging attention which is like infants to, “Here’s the intentional strategy that is important to do the things that you need to do in this culture.” Sometimes it can be the narrow focus that we have in our culture, but in other cultures—it might be if you're a hunter for instance. It might be how to pay attention to lots of different things at once in order to hunt more effectively.

Question: Do you have advice for parents who want to maximize their baby’s unique mental abilities?

Alison Gopnik: Yeah. This is what Piaget called the question americain: “What can we do to make them do it better?” I'm afraid I think the answer to it is pretty boring, which is have lots of caregivers around who love them a lot and have lots of stuff around for them to play with and let them play without worrying too much about whether they're getting academic skills or they're making a mess. One of the things I say is from an evolutionary point of view probably the ideal rich environment for a baby includes more mud, livestock, and relatives than most of us could tolerate nowadays. But I think some pigs, a lot of dirt, a bunch of uncles and cousins—that's probably a pretty good environment for babies to grow up in, but if you can't manage that, then a lot of cardboard boxes, bean plants, gold fish. The kids of things you see, in fact, sandboxes. The kind of things you see in really great preschools. When I say that, it sounds very boring, but here is one important thing: we know from the science that the thing that kids learn from most is other people and particularly other people who are dedicated to talking care of them. In most places and times, in human history, babies have had not just one person but lots of people around who were really paying attention to them around, dedicated to them, cared to them, were related to them. I think the big shift in our culture is the isolation in which many children are growing up. So in fact if we really wanted to make babies smarter what we would do is make sure that 20 percent of them aren't growing up in poverty, make sure that even middle-class parents aren't so insane because they're working so hard that they can't spend time with their kids, make sure that preschool workers are actually paid more than dog catchers.

The thing that is most important is having people who are involved and engaged with the kids and also are not stressed and can be involved with them. And that's actually not boring and banal. That actually takes a lot of work to make that happen and it's not something that our society does very well at all.

Question: How can early education be fixed to guide children’s mental development?

Alison Gopnik: Well I think the stuff that I study most, which is the babies and infants that seems to be something that's so deeply built in that we see great commonalities across cultures in that respect. It's interesting, when you start thinking about the school aged period, I think we have pretty good reason to believe that for most of human history, the way that babies and children made that transition was through a kind of process of apprenticeship. So the way the children learn the skills that they needed was they practiced them, they had other people around who corrected them, they saw people who were doing the things that were important, they could imitate them, they could practice a little bit. The people around them would say, "Yeah, you're doing that well or badly." And in fact if you think about how we teach kids to cook or how we teach kids to dance or how we teach kids to play basketball, those are all examples where we still use those kids of teaching techniques.

Now we don't do that typically in schools. So in schools, children are not learning to write from people who are writers or by watching people who write. They are not learning how to do math from people who are mathematicians. There is this kind of weird special thing that we have which is school, which is very different from the ways that I think human beings have ever learned before. Now I don't want to be sentimental and romantic about the past, we're not teaching people to people hunters or gatherers, we're teaching them to have this wide range of skills like being able to read and do mathematics and all sorts of other things. I think it's interesting that children so often are so enthusiastic about something like basketball, even with these horrible mean coaches yelling at the kids all the time. I think it was because the kids are kind of tuning into, "Oh, this is really a way that I can learn."

One of the things that I say is imagine if we taught baseball the way we teach science, right. So all through school, what you would do is read about great baseball players and then in college you might get to actually replicate the occasional great baseball game and you'd have pitching drills where you just throw the same ball over and over and over again. You'd never play the game until you got to graduate school; that's pretty much what happens with science, right? We don't actually play the game of science until we get to graduate school and I think our baseball performance would be about like our science performance if that's what we did.

Question: How can adults tune into the mental advantages that infants have?

Alison Gopnik: Right. Well I think there are a bunch of things that adults do that put them back functionally and sort of phenomenologically into the infant state. One thing is traveling. So going to a new place is an example of a situation in which you put yourself in the position of a baby. So if I go to Beijing for the first time, everything around me is brand new, everything is different. I'm soaking up lots of information at once, about everything going on. The doors and the tables and the way people look and everything about the place is new. And I think what happens when you do that is that you actually gain consciousness; you can go around essentially being the faculty meeting-attending zombie for months and months and months. And then you go to Beijing and suddenly you're awake. So I think travel is one example. Another example is caffeine. So caffeine actually seems to have some of the same kind of brain effects that I think are going on with the babies.

So one of the things I say is, “You want to know what it's like to be a baby? It's like being in love for the first time in Paris after four double espressos.” And boy you are alive and conscious. Now you also do wake up at 3:00 in the morning crying in that circumstance, and you're likely to wake up at 3:00 in the morning crying when you go to Beijing for the first time. So I think there is a real trade-off between that extended consciousness and the genuinely valuable adult abilities of focus and planning and goal direction and automaticity.

Certain kinds of meditation actually—what is sometimes called open awareness meditation—seem to do the same thing; all forms of meditation are really ways of manipulating your attentional state. But some of them seem to have this same function of getting you out of the narrow planning focus track into just seeing what's going on around you.

It's the stream of consciousness that you get, I think, in some kinds of psychoanalysis or brainstorming seem to have sort of put you back into that state. Now all of those things, in adults, you can only do for a little while because of course you don't have a mama who is coming and making sure that you're fed and your diapers are changed and all the rest of it. So I think the secret for adults is to get a balance, especially adults who are in as it were child-like occupations like science and art is to get a balance between the wideness and breathe of creativity and then the focus and discipline that you need to actually make things and finish things.

Question: Do these strategies point to methods for reforming college education?

Alison Gopnik: Yeah, actually, I have sat on -- some panels about undergraduate education and it's always kind of embarrassing for me because I'm a cognitive scientist who studies learning and then I get up and I lecture to my students. I do this medieval thing that literally dates from the time before there was printing of getting up and giving my students a lecture; it's completely crazy. So one of the things, if I were [in charge] of undergraduate education for instance, I'd turn it into an apprenticeship. I'd say what you should do is every faculty member should write a summary of what they're doing in laymen's language, which is something that we should all be able to do anyway, and essentially the undergrads should have five research apprenticeship courses; they should just pick five scholars who are doing something interesting and just hang out with them as they're doing whatever it is that they're doing and being apprentices, do little bits and pieces that they think [they are] capable of doing and watch what they do. Find out what's it like to be a historical scholar. How do you deal with archives? What's it like in a lab when you've got a three year old you're trying to study? I think that would be a much better way of doing undergraduate education.

Question: Did your psychology experience help you raise your own children?

Alison Gopnik: Well I have three who are now completely grown up: 30, 29, and 21. My baby is six foot three and 225 pounds and has a shaved head, and piercings and tattoos and he's completely adorable, completely. He's the really, really sweet adorable one. Nothing that I learned as a developmental psychologist was at all informative in terms of raising my own babies because raising children is like swimming or rowing. It's an on-line scale. It's not something that you can do based on theoretical analysis and in fact probably just like swimming. If you do too much theoretical analysis, you're not going to be able to do it as well. So on the other hand, my children certainly taught me a lot about philosophy and psychology. So being with my children and paying attention to them was an enormously informative to me about what was interesting that was going on that I could find out about. But [my work was] absolutely no help at all—they came out fine but [it was] no help at all in terms of actually raising them.

Question: Did you feel a unique pressure to raise your kids well?

Alison Gopnik: I think I felt just the same pressure that all the rest of us middle-class parents in the 20th century feel, which is it's a little tricky because one of the things I'd like to do in my next book is explain both philosophically and psychologically why that is so foolish, the way that there is this very bizarre phenomenon, parenting, which has never existed in history before. The idea that there is this thing that you can learn how to do, which is “to parent”, if you just get enough experts and technology to do it. For most of human history, you just were a parent. It's like imagining learning how to – “boyfriending”, right? That is just a relationship you're in, but that's what [it is] like. In spite of the fact that I told myself that, I am just as susceptible to how are they coming out, are they good, are they now, is it my fault, as everybody else is. As I say, now they're fine so I can take credit for all the good things.

Question: How can babies teach us about love?

Alison Gopnik: Well I think it's arguable that babies are literally at the core of what human love is all about, in two respects. We have some good evidence that the very fact that human being parabond [is] actually very unusual. So if you look at a primates, for example, even our closest relatives like chimpanzees—chimpanzees don't have the kind of male/female parabonds that we do. They have a lot of social allegiances and alliances and they have sex but they don't have what's ethologists call social monogamy. Social monogamy—here's the bad news. The bad news is social monogamy is never sexual monogamy, even swans when you do DNA analysis it turns out that all animals have sex outside of their parabonds. So for you young people out there, that's the bad news.

But the good news is that in spite of that we have parabonds. We have close relationships between the people who are having sex and having children. That's actually sort of unusual among primates, although it's quite common among birds and it's common among other animals. That seems to be associated with the fact that we have this extended period of immaturity. So their story seems to be the more invest there is in babies, the more work it takes to raise the babies, the more likely you are to have parabonding, which kind of makes sense. So parabonding is really a technique for getting lots of people involved in caregiving.

Our babies are like penguins; penguin babies can't exist unless more than one person is taking care of them. They just can't keep going. So it's kind of interesting, I think, in our case, we evolved to one of the most important evolutionary changes that led to our advanced intelligence and our creativity and tool use and all the rest of it is having this extended period of immaturity. But the extended period of immaturity depends on techniques that will let [parents] have a lot of investment in babies. So the very fact that we have a love between partners, romantic love, I think is kind of an epiphenomenon of this more basic thing, which is the love we have as caregivers—the investment that we place in our babies. And if you think about that, that kind of love, the love between caregivers and babies [is] much less written about than romantic love. It's a really extraordinary thing. I say imagine that you had a novel where a woman found someone on the street who couldn't stand and couldn't wash and couldn't take care of himself and the second that she saw him she felt totally and completely utterly in love with him and then she dedicated her life to him for the next 15 years and did everything. I mean, literally. Fed him and raised him and woke up in the middle of the night and tended to him when he was ill and then 15 years later she said, "Go and find yourself a nice young to go and marry." You'd say, "Boy, that's creepy." That's love that's kind of so out there it's really weird, right? But of course that's every single mother. That's exactly what we all do. That's our lives as mothers and fathers and great-uncles and anybody who cares for a baby; that's what it's like.

And in fact, I think if you look at some of the examples of in the spiritual traditions about the kind of love that bodhisattvas are supposed to feel, or saints are supposed to feel, or others are supposed to feel. An idea that you see a lot in religion traditions about the highest [love] God is supposed to feel. The highest form of spiritual love is this love that has this combination of utter particularity. So it's not just kind of abstractly I love mankind; it's I love this person with that kind of intensity and utterly selfless that I love this person so much that they're more important than I am. And bodhisattvas go around allegedly, in the Buddhist tradition, loving every single sentient creature on earth that way. And I think the model for that is the way all us fallible, every day boring human beings feel about the babies we take care of. And if we don't, there is something really terribly wrong. It's funny -- I was thinking I have my dearly beloved partner and I think that I take pretty good care of him but that means, you know, I cook him dinner and we spend an hour or two talking in the evening and then I let him alone all during the day. Well that counts as being pretty good loving care for a partner. If I did that with a baby, I would be a hideously abusive mother. So even a bad caregiver is already devoting care to this person that would be literally saintly if you were devoting it to anybody else. And you do it not knowing what this baby is going to be like. It doesn't depend on their particular features; you have no idea what the baby is going to be like. And we do it every day, routinely, without even thinking about it or paying much attention to it. So one of the things I say is there are lots of ways to have -- be saintly and love outside of having babies but boy having a baby is a good way to very quickly and officially experience a little bit of saintliness.

Question: Is there a gradation in the ability of animals to feel love based on development speed?

Alison Gopnik: Well there is actually quite a lot of interesting data about this. So if you look across animals, there is this distinction between our species and K species. K species, the ones who have relatively few offspring, invest a lot in those offspring and long period of immaturity for those offspring. Those are typically the most intelligent, flexible learning-oriented animals. So if you compare the great class comparison is between crows and chickens. So no morals, things about primates and chimps and humans enter into this. Crows are amazingly smart birds. They have abilities that challenge the cognitive abilities of primates and they have a very long period of immaturity. Chickens are basically dumb as stumps; I mean, they are really, really good at doing things like pecking for grain and doing the things they have to but they're not smart and they are mature very quickly. That seems to be a correlation that you see across many, many, many different animals. So but I think part of what happens is that if you look at other animals, like wolfs or hyenas—we are actually doing some work with wolfs now—not that you don't see love, you see lots of social allegiances and social complexities and in chimps you see lots of social allegiances and complexities but they have a kind of different characters. So they are more like what happens in a bunch of friends; so they're about how do you interact with a lot of other members of your species to get something done. That is something that primates do a lot and primates are, I think that living as a chimp is a lot like kind of being in a trollop or a Jane Austin novel where everybody's always saying, "Now where am I on the pecking order in comparison to everybody else who is on the pecking order? What's the relationship between the Baronets and the gentry?" That's kind of like what I think life as a chimp is. So it's clear that chimps love and they have these -- and chimp mothers clearly have very, very deep particular love for their babies. But I think it's very different from the way that creatures like us are oriented to love.

Question: What keeps you up at night?

Alison Gopnik: What worries me about the world? Well, 20 percent of American children growing up in poverty. Yeah, that's pretty worrying. The fact that we invest nothing in children between the ages of zero and five. Our public University at Berkeley is crumbling but at least we have some investment in it. We do nothing for children between the ages of zero and five. And we seem to be quite happy to have children growing up in not just poverty, which wouldn't be so bad, but isolation, lack of people around them, lack of support, lack of ability to go out and play in the dirt. Those kinds of things. Yeah, that definitely has me worried late at night. Babies are very resilient. People are very resilient. We've managed to think of lots and lots of different ways of solving this fundamental human problem of raising children, but the fact that babies can't vote and mothers are too damn busy to vote, or at least be involved in politics, means that the thing that is an important literal senses the most important thing for human beings which is raising our next generation. I think this is literally true, is something that is just out there on the margins of politics. And I think that's really problematic.

Question: What is the biggest obstacle you've had to overcome in your career?

Alison Gopnik: Yeah. I think that's a good question. I think the most problematic thing for me is that the two great intellectual passions of my life are very hard-nosed analytic philosophy of mind and cognitive science on the one hand, which is what I started out doing. I was a philosopher. And is still in some important sense where my deepest heart is and children and babies on the other hand. And of course that hard-nosed analytic philosophy of mine, philosophy in general is totally dominated by men, has been a field that is even more dominated by men than theoretical physics is.

And of course anything to do with babies is completely associated with women. So it's been a real struggle. Half the time I thought to myself, "Well, come on. You don't want to be a women whose career is devoted to doing all those womany things with kids and babies and all that girl stuff, right?" And another part of me has -- you should really go and become the analytic philosopher and show that this is something that women can do just as well. The other part of me says, "No, no. What you should be doing is showing that all that stuff that everybody treats with that much dignity, babies, children, they're actually telling us this much, if you pay attention to them." There is deep and profound and is important and tell us as much about any of the things that we care about in analytic philosophy as the science and the things that analytic philosophers -- guy philosophers typically pay attention to.

So the whole point of my career has been to try to take babies and young children who have been -- I don't think it's too much of an exaggeration to say I've been sort of intellectually treated with contempt over the years. When I was in graduate school, one of the Oxford Philosophers, when I was talking about how children could explain about philosophy, turned to me and said, "Well you know, one has seen children about hasn't one that -- but one would never actually speak to one, " and that's not totally out of the attitude that people have had towards babies and children. So what I've tried to do is take that world and show just how deep and profound and analytic and rigorous and intellectually serious it is.

That hasn't always been an easy -- that hasn't always been an easy road, but I am glad that I actually tried to do both of those things and put both of those things together instead of just following one or the other.

Recorded on: October 8, 2009