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What are babies thinking?

Expert explains their playful experiments
 Posted: 2:00 AM August 01, 2012

Neither TED Conference audiences nor Stephen Colbert of "The Colbert Report" can stump developmental psychologist and author Alison Gopnik when she is asked to explain why she believes children are born scientists who know how to effectively experiment to reach a worthy conclusion.

The author of "The Scientist in the Crib" and "The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Love, Truth and the Meaning of Life," Gopnik also has wisdom to share about adults: how being in foreign territory and playing with ideas bring out the innovators in us.

Gopnik, who lives in Berkeley and is a professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley, will speak at ScienceWorks Hands-on Museum at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 2. Her website, www.alisongopnik.com, has links to her research, papers and lectures.

If you go:

What: "Children as Scientists and Scientists as Children" presentation

Who: Developmental psychologist and author Alison Gopnik

When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 2

Where: ScienceWorks Hands-on Museum, 1500 E. Main St., Ashland, 541-482-6767

Cost: $10 suggested donation

Ashland Daily Tidings' reporter Janet Eastman located the busy researcher on Tuesday and asked her to share some of her insights and research about what kids are thinking.

Question: You say babies are powerful learning machines who make complicated calculations with conditional probabilities that they revise to figure out how the world works. You say adults become this way when they are in new situations that they can't predict and they have to figure out. When did this last happen to you?

Gopnik: The best example of when this happens to adults is when we're traveling. It was especially clear when I went to Beijing because it is a really different environment than what I'm accustomed to. How people interact and everything is different. I became bad at managing my initial goals but I became better at seeing what was going on around me. It was a vivid expansion of my consciousness.

Question: You compare babies to the research and development division of a company and adults to the production and marketing side. If we have to dream up something new, would it help us to play with toys or hang out with babies?

Gopnik: Both are true. It's not a coincidence that high-tech companies like Pixar and Google are famous for the importance they put on the equivalent of play. Google lets its workers spend one day a week working on something they like, essentially a way of playing. We may not be playing with blocks but playing with ideas to get us unstuck. When you look at institutions of science or technology, you see that they recognize that we need to take time off to get us out of the usual rut. In academics, it's called sabbaticals.

Question: Your research tells you that 18-month-olds can figure out that people may have preferences unlike their own and that 4-year-olds run through systematic hypotheses to reach an answer. You carefully explain the tests that helped you come to these conclusions and how children are able to communicate with you not through words but actions. Why is it still hard for adults to understand that kids are smarter than they think they are?

Gopnik: As adults, when we want to figure out what's going on in someone's mind, we ask questions. But as we know, people can be misleading. We don't always know what we think. If you ask children to explain a choice, you get a blank stare or a beautiful stream of conscious explanation. To learn what they are thinking, we look at actions such as where their eyes are moving and what they imitate.

Question: You say that scientists are rewarded for conducting experiments but when children experiment, we call it "getting into everything" or "playing." Maybe adults should play more?

Gopnik: What we should do is pay more attention to what children are doing when they are "getting into everything." I have an advantage of having a 9-month-old grandson and I get to watch him. In 15 minutes, he does more experimenting than I can do in my lab in a year. If you watch babies and count up how many experiments they conduct to figure something out, you realize what brilliant scientists they are.

Question: How would it benefit adults to hang out at interactive science centers like ScienceWorks?

Gopnik: Science museums are the best places for exploration. I get pretty depressed about how we raise children but not at science museums. There, children are asking questions, and parents, instead of putting out fires and trying to get through their day, are kicking back and exploring with their children.

Question: You appeared on Comedy Central's popular "The Colbert Report" and proved to Stephen Colbert that babies are moral. Or did you?

Gopnik: We have increasing evidence that even 14- and 15-month-olds are altruistic. They will try to help someone do something even when there is nothing in it for them. They will climb over cushions to retrieve a pencil for you if they think you need it.

Question: Finally, will you adopt me? You seem fun.

Gopnik: You might want to talk to my three sons before you jump to that conclusion.


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