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The Scientist In the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind by Alison Gopnik, Andrew N. Meltzoff and Patricia K. Kuhl

January 3, 2012

Anyone who has spent any time with a three-year-old has experienced the all-day barrage of questions—why? why? why?—each answer opening a door to a new string of questions until, finally, the kid falls asleep. Knowledge, explanation, understanding—connections made in the brain—are intensely pleasurable experiences for humans. According to the authors, learning something “marks the successful completion of a natural drive.” And a three-year-old brain is twice as active as the brain of an adult—building more connections faster as they learn about the world around them. They are both able to learn at an astounding rate and love to do it.

Much of this book is concerned with analogies for how babies learn, the central analogy being, as the title suggests, that babies think like scientists. They generate theories for how something works, then test those theories and refine them, generating incredible amounts of knowledge (but fewer spreadsheets). Babies’ brains work constantly to make connections, some which will be fruitful and strengthened over time while other, less useful connections will be “pruned away” as they grow older. That’s why it’s easier for babies to learn new language than adults. Adults’ brains have been hard-wired to understand their native language and in some cases can’t even distinguish between two different sounds in a foreign tongue.

The most enjoyable part of this book for me was the perfect visual companion to the book at home while reading it—my 7-month-old daughter. I could watch her acting out the different learning processes described in this book—the way she looks to me for a reaction when she encounters something new or surprising, the way she babbles (according to the authors, she’s actually mapping sounds to the movements of her mouth), the way she tries different ways of crawling, slowly zeroing in on a technique that’s going to propel her to the next stage of freedom.

This is not a how-to guidebook. It’s more of an explanation of what’s going on inside a baby’s amazing little head. It addresses some of the current body of knowledge about cognitive development (nature vs nurture, how much babies learn vs what they are born knowing, etc.), but it is actually fairly critical of the genre of “baby genius” books. To the authors, babies have evolved to be incredible learning machines, and adults have evolved to be incredible teachers, simply by the way we instinctively interact with babies. The most critical thing is that we allow ourselves enough time to spend with our children so that they can learn from us. And as a new father, I’d say that the learning goes both ways.   

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