Over at Sciam’s Mind Matters, Melody Dye has a great post on the surprising advantages of thinking like a baby. At first glance, this might seem like a ridiculous conjecture: A baby, after all, is missing most of the capabilities that define the human mind, such as language and the ability to reason or focus. Rene Descartes argued that the young child was entirely bound by sensation, hopelessly trapped in the confusing rush of the here and now. A newborn, in this sense, is just a lump of need, a bundle of reflexes that can only eat and cry. To think like a baby is to not think at all.
And yet, Dye notes that the very neural features that make babies so babyish might also allow them to learn about the world at an accelerated rate. Consider, for instance, the lack of a prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is woefully underdeveloped in infants. (Your PFC isn’t fully developed until late adolescence.) One of the main consequences of not having an online PFC is that babies can’t focus their attention. Alison Gopnik, a UC-Berkeley psychologist who has written a few wonderful books on baby cognition, suggests the following metaphor: If attention works like a narrow spotlight in adults – a focused beam illuminating particular parts of reality – then in babies it works more like a lantern, casting a diffuse radiance on their surroundings.
The lantern mode of attention can make babies seem very peculiar. For example, when preschoolers are shown a photograph of someone – let’s call her Jane – looking at a picture of a family, they make very different assumptions about Jane’s state of mind. 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. This suggests that the so-called deficits of the baby brain are actually advantages, and might be there by design. Here’s Dye:
The superiority of children’s convention learning has been revealed in a series of ingenious studies by psychologists Carla Hudson-Kam and Elissa Newport, who tested how children and adults react to variable and inconsistent input when learning an artificial language. Strikingly, Hudson-Kam and Newport found that while children tended to ignore “noise” in the input, systematizing any variations they were exposed to, adults did just the opposite, and reproduced the variability they encountered.
So, for example, if subjects heard “elle va à la fac” 60% of the time and “elle va à fac” 40% of the time, adult learners tended to probability match and include “la” about 60% of the time, whereas younger learners tended to maximize and include “la” all of the time. While younger learners found the most consistent patterns in what they heard, and then conventionalized them, the adults simply reproduced what they heard. In William James’ terms, the children made sense of the “blooming, buzzing confusion” they were exposed to in the experiment, whereas the adults did not.
Children’s inability to filter their learning allows them to impose order on variable, inconsistent input, and this appears to play a crucial part in the establishment of stable linguistic norms. Studies of deaf children have shown that even when parental attempts at sign are error-prone and inconsistent, children still extract the conventions of a standard sign language from them. Indeed, the variable patterns produced by parents who learn sign language offers insight into what might happen if children did not maximize in learning: language, as a system, would become less conventional. What words meant and the patterns in which they were used would become more idiosyncratic and unstable, and all languages would begin to resemble pidgins.
Or consider this experiment, 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.
And it’s not just complex learning that benefits from a quiet PFC. A recent brain scanning experiment by researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that jazz musicians in the midst of improvisation – they were playing a specially designed keyboard in a brain scanner – showed dramatically reduced activity in a part of the prefrontal cortex. It was only by “deactivating” this brain area – inhibiting their inhibitions, so to speak – that the musicians were able to spontaneously invent new melodies. The scientists compare this unwound state of mind with that of dreaming during REM sleep, meditation, and other creative pursuits, such as the composition of poetry. But it also resembles the thought process of a young child, albeit one with musical talent. Baudelaire was right: “Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will.”