New studies demonstrate that babies and very young children know, observe, explore, imagine and learn more than we would ever have thought possible. In some ways, they are smarter than adults.
Three recent experiments show that even the youngest children have sophisticated and powerful learning abilities. Last year, Fei Xu and Vashti Garcia at the University of British Columbia proved that babies could understand probabilities. Eight-month-old babies were shown a box full of mixed-up Ping-Pong balls: mostly white but with some red ones mixed in. The babies were more surprised, and looked longer and more intently at the experimenter when four red balls and one white ball were taken out of the box — a possible, yet improbable outcome — than when four white balls and a red one were produced.
In 2007, Laura Schulz and Elizabeth Baraff Bonawitz at M.I.T. demonstrated that when young children play, they are also exploring cause and effect. Preschoolers were introduced to a toy that had two levers and a duck and a puppet that popped up. One group was shown that when you pressed one lever, the duck appeared and when you pressed the other, the puppet popped up. The second group observed that when you pressed both levers at once, both objects popped up, but they never got a chance to see what the levers did separately, which left mysterious the causal relation between the levers and the pop-up objects. Then the experimenter gave the children the toys to play with. The children in the first group played with the toy much less than the children in the second group did. When the children already knew how the toy worked, they were less interested in exploring it. But the children in the second group spontaneously played with the toy, and just by playing around, they figured out how it worked.
A baby, in other words, is a learning machine – the infant cortex is designed to assimilate an astonishing amount of new information in a relatively narrow window of time. We might learn pre-algebra in 7th grade, but we learn how the world works (and this includes everything from gravity to language to the coded meaning of facial expressions) before the age of three. As a result, the baby brain has to be incredibly plastic, dense with excitatory neurons and filled with connections between disparate cortical areas. These wiring differences (and the fact that babies have a mostly unformed prefrontal cortex) also shape the ways in which babies pay attention. Here’s how I described baby attention in a recent article that discusses Gopnik’s new book, The Philosophical Baby (which is great and highly recommended):
If attention works like a narrow spotlight in adults – a focused beam illuminating particular parts of reality – then in young kids it works more like a lantern, casting a diffuse radiance on their surroundings.
“We sometimes say that adults are better at paying attention than children,” writes Gopnik. “But really we mean just the opposite. Adults are better at not paying attention. They’re better at screening out everything else and restricting their consciousness to a single focus.”
Consider, for instance, what happens when preschoolers are shown a photograph of someone – let’s call her Jane – looking at a picture of a family. When the young children are asked questions about what Jane is paying attention to, the kids quickly agree that Jane is thinking about the people in the picture. But they also insist that she’s thinking about the picture frame, and the wall behind the picture, and the chair lurking in her peripheral vision. In other words, they believe that Jane is attending to whatever she can see.
While this less focused form of attention makes it more difficult to stay on task – preschoolers are easily distracted – it also comes with certain advantages. In many circumstances, the lantern mode of attention can actually lead to improvements in memory, especially when it comes to recalling information that seemed incidental at the time.
Consider this memory task designed by John Hagen, a developmental psychologist at the University of Michigan. A child is given a deck of cards and shown two cards at a time. The child is told to remember the card on the right and to ignore the card on the left. Not surprisingly, older children and adults are much better at remembering the cards they were told to focus on, since they’re able to direct their attention. However, young children are often better at remembering the cards on the left, which they were supposed to ignore. The lantern casts its light everywhere.
“Adults can follow directions and focus, and that’s great,” says John Colombo, a psychologist at the University of Kansas. “But children, it turns out, are much better at picking up on all the extraneous stuff that’s going on. . . . And this makes sense: If you don’t know how the world works, then how do you know what to focus on? You should try to take everything in.”