In the new science of children's minds, babies are smarter than adults, according to book co-authored by UC Berkeley psychologist

By Patricia McBroom, Public Affairs

BERKELEY-- That baby in the crib only looks like a soft, downy, innocent creature without an agenda. Actually, it has the greatest mind in the universe in the process of solving major philosophical questions with a brain that is smarter, faster and busier than any adult's.

Thus begins a new book by three leading developmental scientists whose insights from the combined fields of psychology and neurology have generated a quantum leap in understanding how a child's mind grows.

The research, published in "The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains and How Children Learn" (William Morrow, 1999), makes clear that what society does for preschoolers will affect not only the lives of those children but the future of the world as well.

The book is co-authored by Alison Gopnik, a leading cognitive psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley; and, from the University of Washington, Andrew Meltzoff, a pioneer in infant psychology, and Patricia K. Kuhl, a world authority on language development. Kuhl was one of a handful of scientists who attended the 1997 White House Conference on Early Childhood Development and Learning to inform President Clinton in person about new research findings on children.

"It is remarkable how much little children know and how much they learn in a short time," said Gopnik, a UC Berkeley professor of psychology and the book's primary author.

"If you combine the psychological and neurological evidence, it is hard to avoid concluding that babies are just plain smarter than we are, at least if being smart means being able to learn something new," she writes.

Before preschoolers enter kindergarten, their brains are more active and more flexible, with more connections per brain cell, than the brains of adult human beings, the researchers have discovered. By age three, the child's brain is actually twice as active as an adult's. It has some 15,000 synapses or connections per neuron, many more than in the adult brain.

Gopnik said that, contrary to traditional beliefs about children, toddlers do think in a logical manner, arriving at abstract principles early and quickly.

"They think, draw conclusions, make predictions, look for explanations and even do experiments," said Gopnik. In fact, scientists are successful precisely because they emulate what children do naturally, she said.

Gopnik's work is based on more than 10 years of observation and research with toddlers at the Harold E. Jones Child Study Center, an arm of UC Berkeley's Institute of Human Development. That work has been combined with Meltzoff's discoveries about an infant's knowledge at birth and Kuhl's brain research on language development.

Their book is written in lay language to bring these new discoveries to parents, but the research also has implications for new educational programs being considered at the federal and state level for preschoolers.

"Our research shows that the attention of caring, nurturing grown-ups is extremely important for the learning of babies from birth. But we are doing nothing as a society to insure that children get that kind of attention," she said.

Gopnik and her co-authors do not recommend new educational schemes for preschoolers, such as flash cards and Mozart tapes, noting that there is no evidence any environment can be artificially created to make people brighter or better.

"But there is plenty of evidence that deprivation makes them worse," she said, adding that it is not enough to just feed children and put them to bed.

Parents and other adults "need the time and energy to exercise their natural ability to help babies learn," said Gopnik. "We should do what we do best - talk, play, make funny faces, pay attention. We just need time to do it.

"Artificial interventions are at best useless and at worst distractions from the normal interaction between grown-ups and babies," the authors write in their book.

Gopnik and her colleagues argue that evolution has designed the brains of babies and the behavior of adults to interact in such a way that children move through specific stages in the first few years of life, learning from adults about emotions, physical objects and language.

The baby's first task, for instance, is to learn about human emotions and psychology. Beginning from a base of synchrony in the first year, when babies think all other minds want the same things they do, they discover at about 18 months that people are different. Thus begin the "Terrible Twos," when toddlers explore differences by deliberately doing the things their parents tell them not to do.

"Their behavior is quite rational," said Gopnik. "Toddlers are systematically testing the dimensions on which their desires and the desires of others may be in conflict.

"They may stare gravely at you while they head for a forbidden object, because your reaction is the really interesting thing. The child is a budding psychologist. We parents are the laboratory rats."

Gopnik's group studied this enormous change in a toddler's awareness by setting two bowls in front of children, one filled with tasty goldfish crackers, the other with raw broccoli. All children naturally prefer the goldfish crackers, but the experimenter in some tests made it clear she preferred the broccoli. When she held out her hand and asked the children to give her some, 14-month-old babies would give her goldfish, but 18-month-old toddlers would hand her the broccoli. They had discovered that people can want different things.

At the same time they are learning about human feelings, little children are exploring the properties of objects in the world, coming to understand the principle of cause and effect, the existence of categories and the nature of disappearance.

"Human children in the first three years of life are consumed by a desire to explore and experiment with objects," write the authors. "They are like scientists. The crib, the house and the backyard are excellent laboratories."

Gopnik is concerned that children may start school with insufficient adult interaction to adequately achieve this kind of mental and emotional understanding. Kindergarten teachers tell her their job has been getting harder because they see more children with discipline problems.

"Maybe this is just nostalgia for the past, but it seems to be a general perception on the part of kindergarten teachers," said Gopnik. "I believe that the circumstances children were designed to learn in are not as available as they used to be.

"One fifth of our children are growing up in poverty. At all economic levels, many children live in chaotic situations with adults who are harassed and worried and who don't have enough time to play with them."

The authors call for increased payments to parents for childcare or vouchers for taking time off work.

"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," they write.


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