Monday, May 21, 2018

The Scientist in the Crib by Alison Gopnik, Andrew Meltzoff, and Patricia Kuhl

Motherese seems to teach children about people and objects as well as about words. Korean-speaking mothers emphasize actions when they speak to their babies, while English speakers emphasize objects. Just as babies seem responsive to the differences in sounds, they also seem responsive to the differences in content. The Korean-speaking babies seem to focus more on actions, while the English-speaking babies pay more attention to objects. The grown-ups' language seems to lead the children toward new ideas about the world. 
One of the most exciting and bizarre things about being a new parent is the mystery of what, exactly, is going on inside your baby's head at any given moment. Gopnik et al tackle that mystery here, and give an overview of the state of infant and child development (at least where it stood 18 years ago). They divide the development of the mind into three categories: The Other Minds problem (our ability to recognize the ways in which other humans are both similar to and different from us), the External World problem (our ability to translate the onslaught of sensory data we receive into a coherent perception of the world around us), and the Language problem (our ability to parse sounds into thought and thoughts into sounds). Each of these problems is still, on some level, unsolved, but the authors lay out the research and studies that get us close to answers.

The overarching theme, as suggested by the title, is that babies are the original scientists. All of their energy is devoted to testing out and reforming hypotheses about the world around them to solve those three problems. They're constantly collecting and analyzing data and using it make sense of the world around them. As a parenting book (Gopnik apparently hates "parenting" as a verb...sorry, Alison!), it is both frustrating and relieving to discover that we play a relatively minimal role in all of this. The things we do naturally--talking to our children, narrating the world around them--are about all we can do.

The organization of this book was a little wonky. They don't go chronologically (a baby's brain is doing such and such and such and such age), but they also don't clearly organize it according to the problems they lay out in the opening pages either (although the chapter headings suggest that they have). It's clearly written, witty and accessible, but the thread is often hard to follow. That being said, I learned a ton about babies' brains, and I look at my son and his astonished babbling in a new light.

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