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How Babies Think: The Science of Childhood

by Alison Gopnik, Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl

“Most of us see a picture of innocence and helplessness: a clean slate. But, in fact, what we see in the crib is the greatest mind that has ever existed, the most powerful learning machine in the universe.”

This book is an account of, and an attempt to explain, babies’ and toddlers’ capacities and methods of learning about the world. The central themes may be summarized as follows:

(1) The human brain is like a computer, but a far more sophisticated and powerful one than has ever yet been designed or programmed by human beings.

(2) Human brains are extremely flexible, plastic and sensitive to environmental influences. We are born with a considerable amount of pre-existing knowledge, but more importantly, we have a remarkable ability to learn and adapt.

(3) There is no dichotomy between ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’. “For human beings, nurture is our nature.” Cultural adaptations are as much the product of our brains as the control of universal physiological functions. Evolution has not only created babies with a remarkable ability to learn, but adults with a remarkable ability to teach their children.

(4) Other animals are born with a wider range of pre-existing adaptations to a specific type of environment; human beings are born with a greater capacity to develop adaptations to any of an extremely wide variety of environments: both social and physical.

(5) The price paid by human beings for this greater adaptability is that we are more helpless at birth than most other animals, and undergo a much longer period of immaturity and need for support from parents and other adults.

(6) Despite this helplessness and dependence, infants are not just ‘blank slates’ to be written on by adults. They “think, observe and reason. They consider evidence, draw conclusions, do experiments, solve problems and search for the truth…even the youngest babies know a great deal about the world and actively work to find out more” (p. 13).

(7) The things that children need to learn about come into three broad categories: knowledge about people, knowledge about things, and knowledge about language.

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