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The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life

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For most of us, having a baby is the most profound, intense, and fascinating experience of our lives. Now scientists and philosophers are starting to appreciate babies, too. The last decade has witnessed a revolution in our understanding of infants and young children. Scientists used to believe that babies were irrational, and that their thinking and experience wer For most of us, having a baby is the most profound, intense, and fascinating experience of our lives. Now scientists and philosophers are starting to appreciate babies, too. The last decade has witnessed a revolution in our understanding of infants and young children. Scientists used to believe that babies were irrational, and that their thinking and experience were limited. Recently, they have discovered that babies learn more, create more, care more, and experience more than we could ever have imagined. And there is good reason to believe that babies are actually smarter, more thoughtful, and even more conscious than adults. This new science holds answers to some of the deepest and oldest questions about what it means to be human. A new baby’s captivated gaze at her mother’s face lays the foundations for love and morality. A toddler’s unstoppable explorations of his playpen hold the key to scientific discovery. A three-year-old’s wild make-believe explains how we can imagine the future, write novels, and invent new technologies. Alison Gopnik - a leading psychologist and philosopher, as well as a mother - explains the groundbreaking new psychological, neuroscientific, and philosophical developments in our understanding of very young children, transforming our understanding of how babies see the world, and in turn promoting a deeper appreciation for the role of parents.


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For most of us, having a baby is the most profound, intense, and fascinating experience of our lives. Now scientists and philosophers are starting to appreciate babies, too. The last decade has witnessed a revolution in our understanding of infants and young children. Scientists used to believe that babies were irrational, and that their thinking and experience wer For most of us, having a baby is the most profound, intense, and fascinating experience of our lives. Now scientists and philosophers are starting to appreciate babies, too. The last decade has witnessed a revolution in our understanding of infants and young children. Scientists used to believe that babies were irrational, and that their thinking and experience were limited. Recently, they have discovered that babies learn more, create more, care more, and experience more than we could ever have imagined. And there is good reason to believe that babies are actually smarter, more thoughtful, and even more conscious than adults. This new science holds answers to some of the deepest and oldest questions about what it means to be human. A new baby’s captivated gaze at her mother’s face lays the foundations for love and morality. A toddler’s unstoppable explorations of his playpen hold the key to scientific discovery. A three-year-old’s wild make-believe explains how we can imagine the future, write novels, and invent new technologies. Alison Gopnik - a leading psychologist and philosopher, as well as a mother - explains the groundbreaking new psychological, neuroscientific, and philosophical developments in our understanding of very young children, transforming our understanding of how babies see the world, and in turn promoting a deeper appreciation for the role of parents.

30 review for The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life

  1. 5 out of 5

    Jeff Williams

    I gave this two stars, though three might have been ok. Gopnik's book is a collection of some of the latest science on cognition; some involving children, some adults, some non-human primates, and some other animals. What the book fails to do is deliver on the title; the book should be titled, "Summary of current cognition studies" and include the following warning: "Note that chapters are padded and 75% of the writing is superfluous." This could have been edited down into something much more co I gave this two stars, though three might have been ok. Gopnik's book is a collection of some of the latest science on cognition; some involving children, some adults, some non-human primates, and some other animals. What the book fails to do is deliver on the title; the book should be titled, "Summary of current cognition studies" and include the following warning: "Note that chapters are padded and 75% of the writing is superfluous." This could have been edited down into something much more concise and informative.

  2. 5 out of 5

    C.

    The title makes this sound a lot squishier than what it is, which is a actually a behavioral and psychological look at early child-hood development and thinking. The last chapter, about ethics, is a bit less interesting, as Gopnik drifts into her own personal musings, but when she sticks to the science and studies, its fascinating.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Kirsti S.

    MCL. I enjoyed reading about how studies on babies are done. Having read statements like "babies prefer red" I always wanted to know how they came to that conclusion. In this case, babies look for a longer length of time at things that are unfamiliar or novel. Good reminder that baby brains are different from those of adults. Little ones have what Gopnik calls "lantern consciousness" rather than the spotlight attention adults have. Everything is new and interesting and worth paying attention to, MCL. I enjoyed reading about how studies on babies are done. Having read statements like "babies prefer red" I always wanted to know how they came to that conclusion. In this case, babies look for a longer length of time at things that are unfamiliar or novel. Good reminder that baby brains are different from those of adults. Little ones have what Gopnik calls "lantern consciousness" rather than the spotlight attention adults have. Everything is new and interesting and worth paying attention to, which makes focus and completion of a task so difficult. My mystifying quote from the author that has just spent 200 pages arguing that babies are so much more complex than we give them credit for: "Still, historically, most moral advances widen the circle of our moral concern. Within the United States the legal system has gradually evolved to give full moral status to women, African Americans, and most recently gays and lesbians. Internationally, the human rights movement attempts to widen the legal circle to everyone in the world. The animal rights movement is on the current cutting edge of this widening of concern, arguing that moral status should be extended beyond human beings themselves." And yet, we refrain from giving full moral status to helpless babies. Might the unborn have more to them that we realize?

  4. 5 out of 5

    Rossdavidh

    Subtitle: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life. Believe it or not, despite that somewhat saccharine subtitle, this is a book filled with a lot of hard science. Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology at UC-Berkeley, and she has done her share of non-saccharine work. For example, she has published results on Bayesian networks. So, while she clearly finds babies interesting for all the normal adult-woman-and-mother kinds of reasons (and is not above using exam Subtitle: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life. Believe it or not, despite that somewhat saccharine subtitle, this is a book filled with a lot of hard science. Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology at UC-Berkeley, and she has done her share of non-saccharine work. For example, she has published results on Bayesian networks. So, while she clearly finds babies interesting for all the normal adult-woman-and-mother kinds of reasons (and is not above using examples from her own experience as a mother where it helps to clarify the concepts she's discussing), she has also managed to find a way to engage the more analytical part of her brain. Most of us wonder, at some time or another, what is really going on in the minds of babies. Dr. Gopnik is one of those researchers who has actually worked on finding out. There are a lot of interesting ideas in this book. One is the idea that children aren't just more innovative, exploratory, and experimental than adults as a stage on the way to growing up, but rather that our species has achieved a division of labor between the generations. In other words, children are our species' R&D department. The extended dependency of our species allows us to spend years trying out new (and mostly rubbish) ideas, before we settle down to being productive and relatively predictable. Seen in this light, the inability of children to remain focused and productive is not a bug (that they grow out of), it's a feature (that they lose when they change from R&D to production), and if you did find a way to take it away you would achieve the same result as any short-term CEO who cuts funding for the R&D department: more productive in the short term, but an inability to innovate in the long term. So, when your kid cannot concentrate on getting the chores done without getting distracted, even when it's to their advantage to just do it and get it over with, relax. Getting distracted and trying other things not in the plan is what children are supposed to be doing. Gopnik is also one of those researchers who has worked her way into a position where she is able to confuse babies for a living. This, I think, has got to be a great gig. Essentially, it all began when a researcher (I am not sure exactly who) came upon the idea of timing exactly how long babies look at something, as a measure of how unexpected it was to them. If things disappear, or if stuffed animals act nice towards something that's mean to them, do babies find that odd, and stare at it longer? This is a way of finding out what babies' expectations are about the world, when they are far too young to allow the method of just asking them (and one wonders if with adults it might even be a preferable method since we often aren't very honest about what our beliefs and expectations are). So, some of the things which researchers (or, more accurately, theorists) in 19th and early 20th century psychology said about the minds of babies, turns out to be demonstrably false. For example, they do have expectations about how physics works (things get from here to there by moving through all the points in between, for example, not by teleporting), how living things work (if a stuffed animal or animated blob is helpful now, it is more likely to be helpful, not mean, later), and even a theory of mind (other living things have goals, and it is surprising to a baby if the hand which was trying to get the teddy bear, after the teddy bear and the block switch places, continues to reach towards the old spot rather than reaching towards the new spot with the teddy bear in it). I picture researchers like Gopnik brainstorming new ways to confuse babies, and then timing exactly how long the babies look confusedly at whatever just happened. I find confused babies hilarious, which perhaps means I am a bad person, so this sounds to me like something one would pay to do, rather than something you could get paid for. But, I'm glad Gopnik and others have found a way to do it, as the results they come back with have reinforced in many ways that we are not born blank slates, but rather come into the world with certain expectations about it and certain pre-installed algorithms for figuring out the parts that will be different from one culture to another. Gopnik also makes an interesting point about travel: it is, in her educated opinion, the closest thing we can get to re-experiencing the consciousness of an infant. I have noticed myself that simple acts such as going to the grocery store are exciting and sometimes almost overstimulating when you're in a foreign country. If Gopnik is right, then this is an approximation of what life is like as a baby (for whom, after all, every country is a new country). This and more is the reason why Gopnik's book is an intriguing read, even if you're not really interested in babies at all. Babies can function for us as an interesting counter-example, when we try to figure out how our own minds work. If you're interested in that, you should be interested in this book.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Juliana

    I was excited to read this - but found it not as engaging as I hoped. Besides the obvious interest I have because of my 5.5 month old - there were only a few chapters that really felt alive. Made me think of Malcolm Gladwell and how his writing is so inviting and stimulating. Gopnik has a very interesting topic - but doesn't bring it home the way she could have. Of course some good info though on young children and consciousness - lantern vs. flashlight and how they learn. I was excited to read this - but found it not as engaging as I hoped. Besides the obvious interest I have because of my 5.5 month old - there were only a few chapters that really felt alive. Made me think of Malcolm Gladwell and how his writing is so inviting and stimulating. Gopnik has a very interesting topic - but doesn't bring it home the way she could have. Of course some good info though on young children and consciousness - lantern vs. flashlight and how they learn.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Darren Haarsma

    Good insights that are based on academic findings. Gopnik's work helped me consider the unique stages of consciousness that children pass through. Interactions with children will not be the same for me. Good insights that are based on academic findings. Gopnik's work helped me consider the unique stages of consciousness that children pass through. Interactions with children will not be the same for me.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Clara

    I was intrigued -- and skeptical -- of Gopnik's book when I read the reviews. Babies are "more conscious" than adults?! Gopnik's actual treaties is more nuanced and valid than the reviews led me to believe: rather than equate "consciousness" with whatever appears in the spotlight of attention, as many people implicitly theorize, Gopnik outlines how consciousness itself is a variegated, nuanced phenomenon that evolves, perhaps (but not necessarily) inversely, with the tandem development of focuse I was intrigued -- and skeptical -- of Gopnik's book when I read the reviews. Babies are "more conscious" than adults?! Gopnik's actual treaties is more nuanced and valid than the reviews led me to believe: rather than equate "consciousness" with whatever appears in the spotlight of attention, as many people implicitly theorize, Gopnik outlines how consciousness itself is a variegated, nuanced phenomenon that evolves, perhaps (but not necessarily) inversely, with the tandem development of focused attention. The philosophical baby is fascinating and impeccably researched and written. The discussion of counterfactual thought is particularly notable, not only in terms of child development but also as a means of understanding the "mature" cognitive arena.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    Delightful. I read it because I heard Gopnik on the radio and she said that her research leads her to think that "Raising children isn't jus something women do in their spare time. It's what makes us human." I couldn't agree more. Delightful. I read it because I heard Gopnik on the radio and she said that her research leads her to think that "Raising children isn't jus something women do in their spare time. It's what makes us human." I couldn't agree more.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Nicholas

    The book fails to answer its title.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Gabriel Eggers

    A wonderful book that shows how understanding of babies and philosophy are intimately connected. Studies on infants help us to learn a lot about the nature of human thought and experience. About how learning and development occur, and about different types of consciousness and the implications of those different consciousness. It even helps us get closer to answering the question of: what is consciousness.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    An interesting review of psychological research examining babies consciousness, learning, and understanding. I preferred the second half of the book that talked more about the applications/relevance of the research studies.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Nick

    In the Middle Ages, humans thought of children as imperfect adults. Once the half-grown-ups reached age seven, that was the age of reason and they could be judged as adults, at least by God, and found wanting. Then, roughly in the Victorian period, we developed a sense of childhood as a time apart. Children were different from us world-weary grownups -- they were innocent and pure. Both good and bad consequences flowed from this shift in perspective. Once the psychological-industrial complex dev In the Middle Ages, humans thought of children as imperfect adults. Once the half-grown-ups reached age seven, that was the age of reason and they could be judged as adults, at least by God, and found wanting. Then, roughly in the Victorian period, we developed a sense of childhood as a time apart. Children were different from us world-weary grownups -- they were innocent and pure. Both good and bad consequences flowed from this shift in perspective. Once the psychological-industrial complex developed a view of childhood, it was still seen as a time apart, but basically an ill-formed one. Children were little monsters, on the whole, possessed of all the urges of adults without any of the restraints. Today, we have a more nuanced view, as beautifully written up in this delightful volume by Alison Gopnik. Babies are once again more like us grownups in some ways -- possessed of morality, reasoning, and rational thought right from the womb -- but different in others. Children are more plastic, more open, and more present than us, like tiny enlightened Buddhist monks, perhaps. Gopnik reintroduces us to the world of childhood, and it's pretty special. Gone are the little monsters (unless you're trying to get one ready for school) and replacing them are philosophical babies who have a good deal to teach us about learning, thinking, and wonder. It's a good time to be an infant.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Sherry

    Wow, what a powerhouse of psychological, philosophical, and scientific analysis! Intellectual discourse on the highest level, yet so very readable! This gem is a very compelling account of who we are and what we learn, know and understand by studying children under the age of five. Primarily, all manner of profound topics (from love to morality and everything in between) are discussed relative to that which comes innately (heritability), from imitation, or learning from life experience, and how Wow, what a powerhouse of psychological, philosophical, and scientific analysis! Intellectual discourse on the highest level, yet so very readable! This gem is a very compelling account of who we are and what we learn, know and understand by studying children under the age of five. Primarily, all manner of profound topics (from love to morality and everything in between) are discussed relative to that which comes innately (heritability), from imitation, or learning from life experience, and how these factors or processes impact life outcomes through their interrelationships. One of the most novel things Gopnik points out in her book is that throughout 2,500 years of philosophical writing, analysis of the universal yearning for immortality has never touched on the desire for having children and the satisfaction in raising children. Philosophy has been focused on man's desire to avoid physical death and resist fading into oblivion. However, on a very basic level, children give us our immortality, and we are enriched by analyzing why we feel this is so. I highly recommend reading Gopnik's book.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Mark Pennington

    This book isn't a self-help parenting book. Rather it's a digest of research on the cognitive development of children. A good deal of effort is spent refuting early-held ideas about the cognitive ability of children (they had little or none) based on the writings primarily of Jean Piaget. Gopnik covers the past 20 years or so of research which has demonstrated that children have an innate sense of morality -- at least about some things: hitting is unequivocally bad, while being naughty is up for This book isn't a self-help parenting book. Rather it's a digest of research on the cognitive development of children. A good deal of effort is spent refuting early-held ideas about the cognitive ability of children (they had little or none) based on the writings primarily of Jean Piaget. Gopnik covers the past 20 years or so of research which has demonstrated that children have an innate sense of morality -- at least about some things: hitting is unequivocally bad, while being naughty is up for debate. The title comes from the Plato's metaphor of man being inside a cave with nothing but his own shadows on the wall to use to make sense of his world. Plato described our lifelong quest for learning as an effort to get to the opening of the cave where the light is better. Sorry, that trivializes it somewhat. According to Gopnik, from a very early age, babies make hypotheses about cause and effect. For anyone who has children who have made it to age three, this is kind of a "well, duh" idea. However, she does provide interesting insight into the ways kids minds develop and how they process the world and the people around them.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Jason

    As a book that proclaims to offer a new view of philosophical ideas about consciousness, identity, morality, and meaning using new baby research, Alison Gopnick’s The Philosophical Baby fails to deliver on its promise. Disappointingly, this book offers only a cursory treatment of these philosophical ideas. What Gopnick does offer, however, is a window into exciting new research on baby cognition, learning, and socialization. The best parts are those that use research findings to paint a detailed As a book that proclaims to offer a new view of philosophical ideas about consciousness, identity, morality, and meaning using new baby research, Alison Gopnick’s The Philosophical Baby fails to deliver on its promise. Disappointingly, this book offers only a cursory treatment of these philosophical ideas. What Gopnick does offer, however, is a window into exciting new research on baby cognition, learning, and socialization. The best parts are those that use research findings to paint a detailed picture of what it’s like to be a baby. (“What it’s Like to be a Baby”, reminiscent of the famous 1974 paper on consciousness by Thomas Nagel, would have been a more apt title for this book than its current one.) As such, parents hoping to better understand the inner lives of their little ones may find The Philosophical Baby a worthwhile read. Those looking for a highbrow academic work that successfully extrapolates these findings into the philosophical realm, on the other hand, are likely to be disappointed.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Sarah Wojcik

    A delightful philosophy book that is all the more compelling if you're a parent or have a special tiny person in your life. I'm amazed by just how much my little guy can understand and how quickly he'll learn new things about this world that he's entered only six months ago. Discovering that deep in his bones are beautiful moral imperatives has been more moving than I ever anticipated. Reading this book now -- as the love for my son is just growing every day -- was an incredible reminder of how A delightful philosophy book that is all the more compelling if you're a parent or have a special tiny person in your life. I'm amazed by just how much my little guy can understand and how quickly he'll learn new things about this world that he's entered only six months ago. Discovering that deep in his bones are beautiful moral imperatives has been more moving than I ever anticipated. Reading this book now -- as the love for my son is just growing every day -- was an incredible reminder of how the deep, stirring love that a caregiver feels for a baby and that baby for a caregiver is part of what can provide our life with so much richness and meaning.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Heather Pagano

    The book included many great cognitive science studies. At first I thought it was going to be a science read, not a philosophy read, but by the end Gopnik delivered with exploring meaning, not just facts. There were some great points about the role of play and imagination for creative adults, as well.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Kathryn

    Enjoyed reading an interview with the author. Not sure if I'll actually read the book as it seems I already share her philosophy, but want to keep track of her name... Enjoyed reading an interview with the author. Not sure if I'll actually read the book as it seems I already share her philosophy, but want to keep track of her name...

  19. 4 out of 5

    Audrey

    A bit dense, repetitive. But, I love her work/research.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Nick Hudson

    I got onto this title after listening to an episode of the Making Sense podcast that featured John Brockman's "Possible Minds" collection. Sam Harris interviewed George Dyson, Alison Gopnik and Stuart Russell, three of the contributors. Gopnik brought arresting depth, breadth and balance of perspective relative to the flanking interviews, which I found a bit shallow and breathless. It took a while for me to get into the book. The title byline, "What children's minds tell us about truth, love and I got onto this title after listening to an episode of the Making Sense podcast that featured John Brockman's "Possible Minds" collection. Sam Harris interviewed George Dyson, Alison Gopnik and Stuart Russell, three of the contributors. Gopnik brought arresting depth, breadth and balance of perspective relative to the flanking interviews, which I found a bit shallow and breathless. It took a while for me to get into the book. The title byline, "What children's minds tell us about truth, love and the meaning of life", had me worried that the text might drift into psychology and pseudoscience and it took me while to grow comfortable that this concern was misplaced. Gopnik's location of theory in biology is consistent and refreshing and she is precise even in locating the human ability to overcome primordial drives in biology itself. This is a point missed by the great many who fear that biological explanation of human behaviour will translate into destructive normative prescriptions. My initial misgivings might partly explain why I found the later chapters (5 to 9) best, but on reflection, I suspect this is also testament to the book's sound structure. It's certainly not the case that the earlier chapters are uninteresting. Their descriptions of ingenious experiments designed to tease out the features of childhood apprehension are intriguing. Several novel concepts--novel to me, at least--are also delineated; in particular, the notion that a frugal prefrontal cortex spurs creative learning and imagination. Gopnik's discussions of the apprehension of the self and other minds, temporal continuity of the self, development of counterfactuals, the extraction of causal maps and the nature of childhood conscious experience and attention are all fascinating. As a bonus, I found it easy to relate Gopnik's explanations to personal observation of my own children. Throughout, Gopnik's mappings of observed behaviours to evolutionary antecedents proceed in appropriately cautious fashion, steering clear of the flakey "just-so" stories that plague popular works of evolutionary psychology. However, Chapter 3's excursion into Bayesian analysis is unsatisfyingly loose--the only blot on an otherwise pristine epistemological canvas. For people who correctly perceive that knowledge is only ever created through evolutionary processes, the appeal of Bayesianism is understandable, but it's a trap. Bayesian priors are a "turtles all the way down" concept. Upon close inspection, none of the phenomena Gopnik categorizes as Bayesian really are so. Fortunately, none of her other explanations hang on this architecture. After a distinct rise in temperature in Chapter 5's discourse on consciousness, Chapter 6, "Heraclitus' river and the Romanian orphans", gets positively hot, containing a fascinating elaboration of the intricate relation between childhood and adulthood and the first intellectually satisfying analysis of the impact of parents on children that I've come across. Chapter 7's exploration of pair-bonding and allomothering is similarly revelatory, and the importance of the groundwork of the earlier chapters becomes clear. Then comes Chapter 8, which is ultimately my reason for assigning a fifth star. "Love and law: The origins of morality" is packed with fine reasoning, presenting a fascinating take on nativism, empathy, the golden rule, rules and conventions, utilitarianism, deontology and out-groups. The architecture of the book becomes clear as lightbulbs go on and the cathedral is seen for the bricks. Chapter 9 harkens back to the title byline, rounding off an edifying read. The overall impression is of a deeply considered scientist always mindful of the border between fact and speculation, able to acknowledge when we are short an explanation, and careful to flag and motivate conjecture in the context of data contradicting extant theories. She is no wimp in this regard. While Sigmund Freud is something of an easy target, Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg and Noam Chomsky are not. It takes courage and organized argument to assail Piaget, the lionized founder of developmental psychology, whose work Jordan Peterson popularized of late. Gopnik takes him on in a respectful yet firm style that should be imitated. I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone interested in epistemology, moral philosophy, evolutionary psychology or, of course, children. You close this book knowing that you are not done thinking about it. No doubt I will find cause to revisit and edit this review.

  21. 5 out of 5

    molly

    This was a really enjoyable read. It is really a child development book framed at the intersection of science and philosophy, which is a unique take and also one that resonates with me personally as a scientist and someone who likes to reflect deeply on any big project I undertake. I have a feeling pretty soon I will not have the time to do much reflection (t minus 2 weeks till due date!) so it was great to have this time now. (Which, coincidentally, is one of my fears about this young and acute This was a really enjoyable read. It is really a child development book framed at the intersection of science and philosophy, which is a unique take and also one that resonates with me personally as a scientist and someone who likes to reflect deeply on any big project I undertake. I have a feeling pretty soon I will not have the time to do much reflection (t minus 2 weeks till due date!) so it was great to have this time now. (Which, coincidentally, is one of my fears about this young and acute phase of parenting- I will miss the time to have a leisurely read and ponder about deeper meanings.) The majority of the studies I had encountered before in other settings or the child development book I've been slowly picking my way through, but the additional engaging discussion of the implications of the results in a larger sense was really nice. The thoughts were organized into a few main ideas: 1) how our extended childhood, almost unprecedented in the animal world, and its associated period of unfettered play and pretend allows us to construct counterfactual worlds that develop our adult abilities to be able to change the world and imagine new possibilities. 2) how fiction of all types, starting with the imaginary friends of childhood, is crucially important for us to create causal theories of the mind. 3) how babies are essentially tiny little Bayesian statisticians in the way that they learn. I found this particularly interesting given how the central thesis of books like Thinking, Fast and Slow are about how terrible adults are at statistical thinking. 4) reflections on what babies tell us about the nature of consciousness. Gopnik argues that it is likely that babies with their lack of ability to focus their attention are closest to the state that adults are in when they are in meditation or actively traveling through an exotic land. No wonder they get grumpy at the end of a long day of this type of "lantern consciousness." 5) Related to the last, what is consciousness? We think of ourselves as an "I," a little person sitting inside our heads that watches and assimilates everything we do into a coherent story of our lives. But it is clear from studies that children do not think this way until they are older. They might have some piece of knowledge (i.e. that box that they found is filled with pencils and not candy), but they can't necessarily remember how they know that (i.e. did they open the box themselves or did someone else tell them?). In other words, episodic memory is not an important part of the consciousness of young children. 6) a revisiting of the nature vs. nurture debate with the obvious but interestingly researched conclusion that you can't talk about one without the other. 7) an exploration of attachment theory. A tidbit I found particularly interesting here is that different attachment styles tend to predominate in different cultures- for example, avoidant attachment is most common in Germany, while anxious attachment is most common in Japan. This of course has some implications for my current situation and caused me to reflect on the different ways affection is shown in different countries. All in all, a thought provoking read. If you are already familiar with the basics of child development theories, you won't learn a ton of new things, but I still enjoyed the discussion around each concept.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Nathan

    A common angle for scientific books about human nature is to show how we have been shaped by the world over evolutionary time periods. For example, it is thought that the development of uniquely human nature was heavily influenced by the nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle we maintained throughout the Pleistocene. Humans living several tens of thousands of years in the past were thus likely very similar to modern humans in all the fundamentals (such as in their capacities to feel and learn in spe A common angle for scientific books about human nature is to show how we have been shaped by the world over evolutionary time periods. For example, it is thought that the development of uniquely human nature was heavily influenced by the nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle we maintained throughout the Pleistocene. Humans living several tens of thousands of years in the past were thus likely very similar to modern humans in all the fundamentals (such as in their capacities to feel and learn in specific ways, their basic personalities, their phenomenological experiences, etc.). However, Alison Gopnik doesn’t appear to care about any of that. Rather than focusing on how the world has shaped human nature, the author here flips the question to ask how human nature allows us to shape the world (and by “shape the world”, she appears to be referring to the impressive developments in human culture and technology). While this could certainly be an intriguing question, I don’t feel that the data she goes on to present are really getting at the answer, except in a very general, unsatisfying way: e.g., babies learn about the world using x (where “x” stands for some particular mental capacity that babies possess), and thus x is what helps allow humans to formulate new ideas that can change the world. Given her supplied thesis, I guess that I was expecting the author to discuss more specifically the nature of human creativity (using babies of course) and how this can help us understand the origin of novel ideas or the transformation of human culture. But, alas. I also found some of her claims within this overall theme to be a bit platitudinous and hollow, particularly given that they are not exactly addressed by the data she later presents. For example, the part about children being the creative “brainstormers” and “discoverers” while adults are merely the unimaginative “implementers” of those discoveries - what is she talking about? As far as I know, the vast majority of human “advances” are invented by grownups. She also claims that Peter Singer’s arguments (i.e., that the granting of personhood to babies to the exclusion of some other animals, e.g., apes and whales, is untenable given the richer mental life of these animals) can be put to rest by research showing that babies are in some ways even more conscious than adult humans! She’s obviously equating very different types of consciousness. Sentience (i.e., awareness of the external world) possessed by babies and many other animals is very different from the sort of self-consciousness that Singer was talking about. And when discussing ethics, although she begins by arguing that human morality is principally learned as children observe the morality of others (as opposed to being innate), the data she then presents on the subject only speak to the young age at which mainstays of human morality (empathy, fairness, etc.) appear, not to the role of the environment in moral sense development. I’m all for celebrating the suppleness of human brain tissue, but I think Gopnik’s lofty ideals about the vast potential of the human mind to change (and thus be a force for change in the world) are here sometimes an awkward fit to the data she presents. But to land on a more positive note, by far the most interesting parts of the book are in chapters 4-5, where she tones down some of the inspiration philosophy and focuses on how subjective conscious experience changes from early childhood into adulthood and why this shift might exist. The picture she paints (citing several clever studies) is one where babies (children < 3) are in the total enthrallment of that which is positioned right in front of them, in the present moment. There is no yesterday or tomorrow, no sense of a chronological self that ties together one’s past, present, and future, no inner dialogue or ceaseless mental cross-talk, no sense of an executive making plans (as illusory as that sense may be), no “me”. Although babies possess a memory, it is not intertwined with the sensation of being a traveler through life, and thus is not really “theirs” (babies appear not to distinguish their memories from someone else’s). Nor do they seem able to imagine a distinct future state with them in it. Much like other animals, babies possess a mind in which simply one idea after another pops in and then pops out (Gopnik suggests that this type of mental experience might be simulated by being in between states of waking and sleeping). However, unlike (most?) other animals, baby human minds are equipped to use these observations as the basis for mapping out causal relationships in the particular physical and social world they find themselves in. And because babies are not sidetracked from the present world by focused learning, goal execution, and streams of mental commentary (“spotlight” consciousness), they are remarkably effective at making impartial and diffuse observations concerning whatever is in their field of vision (“lantern” consciousness). For example, although three-year-olds were much worse at recalling focal objects shown to them than older children, they actually performed better than older children at recalling non-focal objects that were peripherally shown at the same time. The evolution (or retention) of a distinct baby consciousness may have resulted from the fact that a certain level of basic knowledge about the local environment must be mastered before one can be expected to effectively establish a life strategy or self-concept that will be most advantageous within the physical and cultural situation one happens to have landed in. Another possibility is that fully developed self-consciousness requires language, which takes a few years to learn. Either way, there is a real (if gradual) metamorphosis in the fundamental nature of consciousness experienced by babies and adults. And these different types of consciousness accompany distinct divisions of labor between the two life stages. Babies are generalist observers with the capacity for learning the basic workings of the physical and social infrastructure of the local environment. Once this world is mapped out, they are then able to construct a “self” who can navigate and manipulate the environment “effectively” (I use quotes because some of us achieve this ideal better than others). Hyper-awareness of our daily surroundings is dialed down in adulthood so that we can often “autopilot” through the physical world, thus reserving limited mental resources for “important” functions such as planning and judging, second-guessing and self-loathing. You would think that because we have all experienced baby consciousness, that this would supply us with some sort of deep appreciation for the mental life of other sentient animals whose conscious experiences are probably qualitatively similar to those of our past selves. That the very nature of that conscious experience precludes our ability to remember and process it is one of life’s bitter pills. Thus, baby consciousness remains a phenomenological mystery. When I recently saw a photograph of my two-year-old self looking up at me with a curious expression, my one thought was, “who the hell was that person?” I suppose I must forever wonder, but in fundamental ways, I'm not sure he was really “me”, not yet. But of course it’s still very interesting to speculate about. It is unfortunate that a lot of the mushy, bait-and-switch context and grandiose implications that Alison Gopnik employs in most of these chapters ended up leaving a bad taste in my mouth. Oh well! With all the love, magic, and babies in the world, it doesn’t especially matter what I think anyway :)

  23. 4 out of 5

    Nimesh

    It helps parents and people who aren't parents too, to appreciate the richnesss and significance of childhood in a new way. Even the most mundane facts of three years old life. When I saw this book I literally desired to know that how I become the grown-up that I am now. It specifically deals with the psychology of children under 6 years of age but based on little experiment which maybe due to the personal experience of author in this field . It may helps us to get into the head of a baby . I do It helps parents and people who aren't parents too, to appreciate the richnesss and significance of childhood in a new way. Even the most mundane facts of three years old life. When I saw this book I literally desired to know that how I become the grown-up that I am now. It specifically deals with the psychology of children under 6 years of age but based on little experiment which maybe due to the personal experience of author in this field . It may helps us to get into the head of a baby . I don't say that everybody should go for this book. But the main thing is that we should be aware about marriage , reproduction , raising babies and their psychology . First of all, we should understand that marriage is not compulsory for all . We should look inside us rather than the market folks . Because marriage is complicated and reproducing baby is the most responsible work . The future person is on the hand of a parents . And also the future world . This surely cover all the marriage and parental problems . And undirectly to the babies psychology . I find this book as a psycho-parental philosophy . Lack of adequate experiments and whole book is wordily parental visions and thought to the babies .

  24. 4 out of 5

    Roza Riaikkenen

    A really good and thoroughly researched book. The author discusses various aspects of babies' and young children's mind expressions, their capacity of learning and change, their emotions and responses in communications. The author explains the most important difference between a grown adult and a baby which allows the baby to learn and change so quickly. It appears that babies don't narrow their focus of attention to a particular aspect of their world, but scatter it simultaneously noticing many A really good and thoroughly researched book. The author discusses various aspects of babies' and young children's mind expressions, their capacity of learning and change, their emotions and responses in communications. The author explains the most important difference between a grown adult and a baby which allows the baby to learn and change so quickly. It appears that babies don't narrow their focus of attention to a particular aspect of their world, but scatter it simultaneously noticing many things around them. Interestingly enough, the author, though endlessly repeating the 'magic materialistic' word 'evolutionary' explaining everything through Darwinian understanding, still recognizes that "children are born knowing a lot about the world and other people". She leaves the reader to guess where and when these newborns could gain their knowledge, which opens the doors to spirituality and the idea of reincarnation. Thinkers will find much food for their thought in this interesting book.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Kelly

    "Children are not just our future because they carry our genes. For human beings, in particular, our sense of who we are, both as individuals and as a group, is intimately tied to where we come from and where we're going, to our past and our future. The human capacity for change means that we can't figure out what it is to be human just by looking at the way we are now. We need instead to peer forward into the vast ramifying space of human possibilities. The explorers we see out there at the far "Children are not just our future because they carry our genes. For human beings, in particular, our sense of who we are, both as individuals and as a group, is intimately tied to where we come from and where we're going, to our past and our future. The human capacity for change means that we can't figure out what it is to be human just by looking at the way we are now. We need instead to peer forward into the vast ramifying space of human possibilities. The explorers we see out there at the farthest edge look very much like our children." I found this book really interesting. It's not so much a book about parenting. Instead it's a book about how" children can help solve some deep and ancient philosophical questions. " Definitely food for thought. I have been returning to its ideas over and over again since I have finished it and have been able to apply them not only to my child, but to myself, my profession, and society in general.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Ryan Schauland

    Professor Gopnik's insights and perspectives on the developing brain are fascinating, and I'd recommend this for someone interested in human development, or for new and scientifically minded parents who want a reminder that they're painfully helpless kids have a specific evolutionary goal in their extended dependency. I heard someone say recently that every non-fiction book they've ever read is about 30% too long. I think this is especially true among academics, who may feel to temptation to exp Professor Gopnik's insights and perspectives on the developing brain are fascinating, and I'd recommend this for someone interested in human development, or for new and scientifically minded parents who want a reminder that they're painfully helpless kids have a specific evolutionary goal in their extended dependency. I heard someone say recently that every non-fiction book they've ever read is about 30% too long. I think this is especially true among academics, who may feel to temptation to expand limited areas of interests into multiple books. I think that's the case here, where Prof Gopnik seemed to stretch a number of fascinating studies and insights into a full book.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    I found this book really frustrating. For every new-to-me facet of childhood development, there were five facts that I'd heard many times. I don't expect an author to perfectly calibrate a book to my background, but somehow this feeling was more prevalent than in any other piece of non-fiction I can remember. Additionally, having a two-year-old around makes one question the conclusions of some of the studies, the same way studies of any humans make generalized conclusions about populations rathe I found this book really frustrating. For every new-to-me facet of childhood development, there were five facts that I'd heard many times. I don't expect an author to perfectly calibrate a book to my background, but somehow this feeling was more prevalent than in any other piece of non-fiction I can remember. Additionally, having a two-year-old around makes one question the conclusions of some of the studies, the same way studies of any humans make generalized conclusions about populations rather than individuals and aren't universally applicable - which is fine, but it just called out that the conclusions can be overreaching.

  28. 4 out of 5

    jennie

    The book had a lot of information and was overall an interesting read. I liked how she related the knowledge that she was presenting to us, to her own life by including examples of her children’s behaviour to help explain her point. I didn’t appreciated Alison using the term ‘mental retardation’ especially cause I thought that it had been replaced. I also thought that the conclusions at the end of each chapter could have been a little more summarised as they dragged on a bit too much.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Holly

    I love the way Gopnik's mind works. She asks wonderful questions and then responds in thoughtful, rational answers. I also adore the way she summarizes each section--so helpful! The Philosophical Baby explores the mind of children, newborn and up, by collecting, examining, and refuting previous theories and then offering new ones. I love the way Gopnik's mind works. She asks wonderful questions and then responds in thoughtful, rational answers. I also adore the way she summarizes each section--so helpful! The Philosophical Baby explores the mind of children, newborn and up, by collecting, examining, and refuting previous theories and then offering new ones.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Shane

    Interesting reading but very academicy. I was hoping it would be more practical. For my daughter, I'll take away the importance of counter-factuals. It is important for her to understand that she affects the world around her, and she has the ability to alter it. Also had some interesting points about how our memory works as we become adults Interesting reading but very academicy. I was hoping it would be more practical. For my daughter, I'll take away the importance of counter-factuals. It is important for her to understand that she affects the world around her, and she has the ability to alter it. Also had some interesting points about how our memory works as we become adults

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