A New Look Inside Babies' Minds

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JLP / Jose L. Pelaez / Corbis

Sure, they may while away their days eating, sleeping and soiling diapers. But Alison Gopnik says it's high time that babies got some respect. In her new book, The Philosophical Baby, the University of California, Berkeley, psychologist says modern research is revolutionizing our understanding of the first years of life, revealing early childhood to be a frenzied period of intellectual, emotional and moral development. "Any child will put the most productive scientist to shame," she writes. Gopnik spoke with TIME about the origins of creativity, the "boondoggle" of educational toys and discerning right and wrong during this uniquely fertile period of life.

TIME: You say that for most of history, babies were seen as "vegetables with a few reflexes." What's going on in a baby's mind that we didn't appreciate before?
Gopnik: If you just casually look at a baby, it doesn't look like there's very much going on there, but they know more and learn more than we would ever have thought. Every single minute is incredibly full of thought and novelty. It's easy as adults to take for granted everything it took to arrive at the state where we are.

You say babies are more imaginative and even more conscious than adults.
They take in much more information from different sources than adults do and work very hard to make sense of that information. It's one reason we think babies sleep so much — they're doing much harder work than grown-ups are. They are the R&D department of the human species.

How about moral development? One of the great philosophical debates is whether people are born with an innate sense of right and wrong or whether it develops over time. Does your research shed light on that question?
Yes, there's quite clearly an innate basis for our moral sentiments. The youngest children have a great capacity for empathy and altruism. There's a recent study that shows even 14-month-olds will climb across a bunch of cushions and go across a room to give you a pen if you drop one. And we know babies imitate facial expressions and are sensitive to emotions; there seems to be a very strong connection with other people early on. It is a very hopeful finding.

What does research suggest about the link between unstructured playtime and creativity later in life?
There's a little bit of evidence that adults who are novelists or musicians, for example, tend to remember the imaginary friends they had when they were children. It's as if they are staying in touch with those childhood abilities in a way that most of us don't. Successful creative adults seem to combine the wide-ranging exploration and openness we see in children with the focus and discipline we see in adults.

I was surprised to read how quickly babies seem to absorb the culture that surrounds them. For instance, you say Japanese babies tend to be more anxious than babies from other countries.
That's another thing that studying babies can help make us realize. Many of the things we just take for granted, that we just think are parts of our [personal] backgrounds, are really things that we've learned.

What are the holy grails for you now in child psychology? What are the pressing questions we're trying to figure out?
The real excitement is collaborating with computer scientists and neuroscientists and starting to understand in detail how children learn so much so quickly. Another interesting frontier is understanding how learning fits with children's emotions and moral relationships. Those two things have tended to be separate — there are people who study emotion and there are people who study knowledge. Increasingly, we're realizing that those things go hand in hand for babies.

What does all this mean for parents? Does your research have any guidance for raising children?
One takeaway is that the billion-dollar industry of quote-unquote educational toys that are supposed to make your baby smarter is a boondoggle. There's no evidence that any of those things make a difference. Children are learning the way that other people's minds work, which is much more important to learn than even letters and numbers. I'm afraid the parenting advice to come out of developmental psychology is very boring: pay attention to your kids and love them.