In a recent TED video, psychologist Alison Gopnik describes how a child’s early cognitive development is a lot like the “Research & Development” sector in an economy.
Babies and young children are constantly experimenting and playing with their environments, absorbing new information, testing new ideas and hypotheses (with scientific-like curiosity), and thereby gaining knowledge about how their world really works.
In many ways, children are better, faster, and more flexible learners than adults – they have to be – so that when they grow up they can use this knowledge to produce results and survive in our society.
One key area of their development is between the ages of 13-18 months, when infants begin to develop empathy at an accelerated pace. This is when infants begin to discover that other humans think and feel differently than how we might think and feel. Gopnik shares an example of this by illustrating young children learning that people may prefer broccoli over goldfish crackers, even though the child tends to prefer the opposite.
At later ages, children begin engaging in remarkable problem-solving skills. Gopnik shares one video of a young child (at about 4 years old) trying to solve a task (getting 2 boxes to light up) by experimenting with different possibilities. After testing about 5 different hypothesis over a 2 minute span, the child discovers the solution to the problem.
In addition, by looking at a variety of different species, Gopnik found that the length of a species’ average childhood is often correlated with greater intelligence. This is strong evidence that the main purpose of childhood is for learning and preparation.
You can check out the full TED lecture here:
How to develop your own kind of “baby mind?”
At times, it can be useful to develop a kind of “baby mind” of our own. This is especially useful for keeping our minds open, flexible, creative, and effective at problem-solving.
Here are some suggestions for things we can do to help create a “baby mind” of our own:
- Engage in novel and unfamiliar environments, such as going on vacation somewhere you’ve never been before (especially at a place where you don’t know the language). This will get your brain to kick into a “learning mode” very similar to that of a baby mind.
- Embrace new interests, hobbies, and curiosities. Babies are constantly trying new things and exploring their environment in new ways. Try to do the same whenever you have the opportunity and time. Pick up a guitar or learn how to paint.
- Drink coffee. According to Gopnik, caffeine activates some of our “baby neurotransmitters.”
- Surround yourself with children more. Volunteer at a daycare or spend more time with your children at home. This is one of the best way to learn how a child’s mind really works.
- Practice Zen meditation. There is a concept known as “beginner’s mind” which is said to be an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, very similar to that of a child. Zen master Shunryu Suzuki wrote a great book on this mindset called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.
These are some small suggestions for increasing our “baby mind” in certain situations. Gopnik reminds us that this doesn’t mean being a baby is better than being an adult, but often there are benefits in adopting a more curious and open-minded attitude like that of a child or newborn. In many ways we should try to retain this attitude into adulthood.
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