What do babies understand and how do they think? In a 2011 TED talk that I recently watched by Dr. Alison Gopnik, she hypothesized that broccoli may be the secret to finding out just how babies think.
The study leaders gave the 15 and 18 month old babies a bowl of raw broccoli and a bowl of goldfish crackers. When the adults study coordinators pretended to love the broccoli and then asked the babies for food, the result was somewhat amazing, and this is where the fun comes into this equation.
The 15 month old babies handed out only the goldfish crackers because they just couldn’t believe that anyone would actually like that broccoli. They stared in disbelief when the adults made a positive fuss over the broccoli and had clearly decided that everyone loves goldfish crackers.
The 18 month old babies might have had trouble comprehending why anyone actually liked the raw broccoli, but if the adult pretended to like it, that’s exactly the food that the baby would give them. If, on the other hand, the adult made a positive fuss over the goldfish crackers, the babies responded accordingly. They gave the adults whichever food they pretended to like.
This experiment demonstrated that the older babies had actually figured out that, not only did people like different things, but also that, if they wanted to please these adults, they should give them what they loved. Just thinking about the sophistication of that decision making should make your adult heads spin just a little becuase I’ve known several adults who have not progressed that far in their thinking.
The question is how do babies learn so much in such a short amount of time? It turns out that there is a direct relationship between how long a childhood any particular member of any species has that is directly related to how big their brains are. For example, as Dr. Gopnik pointed out, crows are very smart while chickens are not. Baby crows depend on their mothers to feed them for up to two years while baby chickens are usually independent within a couple of months. Dr Gopnik’s talk indicated that this may be the reason why crows are incredibly smart and chickens “end up in the soup pot.”
Some animals are great at doing only one thing while others are phenomenal at multi-tasking. Because human beings have bigger brains in relation to their bodies than any other species, we’re smarter, we can learn more, but we’re much more dependent as children than any other species.
The way that evolution seems to have solved this problem is that we have a lot of baby time to do our research and development. Babies’ brains seem to be the most powerful scientific computers in this world. Babies are actually making complicated theoretical decisions based on the scientific method using conditional probability measures on a routine basis.
As it turns out, four year olds are much better at finding unlikely answers to questions than adults might be. When children experiment we call it “getting into everything,” but when you ask a kid to explain something, they actually employ scientific hypothesis.
While adults usually decide that something is relevant and then typically focus on only that element, babies and children find answers through their open mindedness. They can take in lots of information from lots of locations at once. This demonstrates exceptional neuroplasticity. (Which is why creative people may be more childlike in their thinking as well.)
Dr. Gopnik ended by saying that coffee mimics the effect of a baby’s way of thinking. “Being a baby is like falling in love in Paris for the first time after having three double espressos,” but she went on to say that this type of living might also contribute to waking up and crying at three in the morning!