An intriguing hypothesis:
Gopnik argues that babies are not only conscious, they are more conscious than adults. Her argument for this view begins with the idea that people in general — adults, that is — have more conscious experience of what they attend to than of what they disregard. We have either no experience, or limited experience, of the hum of the refrigerator in the background or the feeling of the shoes on our feet, until we stop to think about it. In contrast, when we expertly and automatically do something routine (such as driving to work on the usual route) we are often barely conscious at all, it seems. (I think the issue is complex, though.)
When we attend to something, the brain regions involved exhibit more cholinergic activity, become more plastic and open to new information. We learn more and lay down new memories. What we don’t attend to, we often hardly learn about at all.
Baby brains, Gopnik says, exhibit a much broader plasticity than adults’ and have a general neurochemistry similar to the neurochemistry involved in adult attention. Babies learn more quickly than we do, and about more things, and pick up more incidental knowledge outside a narrow band of attention. Gopnik suggests that we think of attention, in adults, as something like a mechanism that turns part of our mature and slow-changing brains, for a brief period, flexible, quick learning, and plastic — baby-like — while suppressing change in the rest of the brain.
So what is it like to be a baby? According to Gopnik, it’s something like attending to everything at once: There’s much less of the reflexive and ignored, the non-conscious, the automatic and expert. She suggests that the closest approximation adults typically get to baby-like experience is when they are in completely novel environments, such as very different cultures, where everything is new.
[Hat Tip: Marginal Revolution]