Smart Babies

Over at Sciam's Mind Matters, Melody Dye has a great post on the surprising advantages of thinking like a baby. At first glance, this might seem like a ridiculous conjecture: A baby, after all, is missing most of the capabilities that define the human mind, such as language and the ability to reason or focus. Rene Descartes argued that the young child was entirely bound by sensation, hopelessly trapped in the confusing rush of the here and now. A newborn, in this sense, is just a lump of need, a bundle of reflexes that can only eat and cry. To think like a baby is to not think at all.

And yet, Dye notes that the very neural features that make babies so babyish might also allow them to learn about the world at an accelerated rate. Consider, for instance, the lack of a prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is woefully underdeveloped in infants. (Your PFC isn't fully developed until late adolescence.) One of the main consequences of not having an online PFC is that babies can't focus their attention. Alison Gopnik, a UC-Berkeley psychologist who has written a few wonderful books on baby cognition, suggests the following metaphor: If attention works like a narrow spotlight in adults - a focused beam illuminating particular parts of reality - then in babies it works more like a lantern, casting a diffuse radiance on their surroundings.

The lantern mode of attention can make babies seem very peculiar. For example, when preschoolers are shown a photograph of someone - let's call her Jane - looking at a picture of a family, they make very different assumptions about Jane's state of mind. When the young children are asked questions about what Jane is paying attention to, the kids quickly agree that Jane is thinking about the people in the picture. But they also insist that she's thinking about the picture frame, and the wall behind the picture, and the chair lurking in her peripheral vision. In other words, they believe that Jane is attending to whatever she can see.

While this less focused form of attention makes it more difficult to stay on task - preschoolers are easily distracted - it also comes with certain advantages. In many circumstances, the lantern mode of attention can actually lead to improvements in memory, especially when it comes to recalling information that seemed incidental at the time. This suggests that the so-called deficits of the baby brain are actually advantages, and might be there by design. Here's Dye:

The superiority of children's convention learning has been revealed in a series of ingenious studies by psychologists Carla Hudson-Kam and Elissa Newport, who tested how children and adults react to variable and inconsistent input when learning an artificial language. Strikingly, Hudson-Kam and Newport found that while children tended to ignore "noise" in the input, systematizing any variations they were exposed to, adults did just the opposite, and reproduced the variability they encountered.

So, for example, if subjects heard "elle va à la fac" 60% of the time and "elle va à fac" 40% of the time, adult learners tended to probability match and include "la" about 60% of the time, whereas younger learners tended to maximize and include "la" all of the time. While younger learners found the most consistent patterns in what they heard, and then conventionalized them, the adults simply reproduced what they heard. In William James' terms, the children made sense of the "blooming, buzzing confusion" they were exposed to in the experiment, whereas the adults did not.

Children's inability to filter their learning allows them to impose order on variable, inconsistent input, and this appears to play a crucial part in the establishment of stable linguistic norms. Studies of deaf children have shown that even when parental attempts at sign are error-prone and inconsistent, children still extract the conventions of a standard sign language from them. Indeed, the variable patterns produced by parents who learn sign language offers insight into what might happen if children did not maximize in learning: language, as a system, would become less conventional. What words meant and the patterns in which they were used would become more idiosyncratic and unstable, and all languages would begin to resemble pidgins.

Or consider this experiment, designed by John Hagen, a developmental psychologist at the University of Michigan. A child is given a deck of cards and shown two cards at a time. The child is told to remember the card on the right and to ignore the card on the left. Not surprisingly, older children and adults are much better at remembering the cards they were told to focus on, since they're able to direct their attention. However, young children are often better at remembering the cards on the left, which they were supposed to ignore. The lantern casts its light everywhere.

And it's not just complex learning that benefits from a quiet PFC. A recent brain scanning experiment by researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that jazz musicians in the midst of improvisation - they were playing a specially designed keyboard in a brain scanner - showed dramatically reduced activity in a part of the prefrontal cortex. It was only by "deactivating" this brain area - inhibiting their inhibitions, so to speak - that the musicians were able to spontaneously invent new melodies. The scientists compare this unwound state of mind with that of dreaming during REM sleep, meditation, and other creative pursuits, such as the composition of poetry. But it also resembles the thought process of a young child, albeit one with musical talent. Baudelaire was right: "Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will."

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This same material, the lack of a developed PFC, is covered in an article in Scientific American, "How Babies Think". Research by Alison Gopnok, of UC Berkley, discusses how children unconsciously use the Bayesian statistical analysis, they may actually be better than adults at considering unusual possibilities, but when children feel they are being instructed they become less creative.
The article seems to state that we learn to fit in rather than solve problems in the most creative ways.

By Ted Hoppe (not verified) on 14 Jul 2010 #permalink

This lantern view of the world is discussed in the book 'The Open-Focus Brain' by Les Fehmi, a psychologist who directs the Princeton Biofeedback Center. There are some very interesting exercises in the book as well as on the CD that comes with the book. I had no idea what this was about, just picked it up at the library because the cover blurb made me curious.

The CD exercises seem to prevent the listener from thinking in words, and perhaps thus disengage much of the PFC, where I believe the nattering and analyzing lie. It's a strange experience to listen to them, way beyond relaxing; perhaps they put one in a baby frame of mind. I am doing it to see what might happen if I continue, and because it appeals to me to be in a much different frame of mind, without the use of expensive psychedelic thingmies.

By zephyr haversack (not verified) on 15 Jul 2010 #permalink

"It was only by "deactivating" this brain area - inhibiting their inhibitions, so to speak - that the musicians were able to spontaneously invent new melodies. "

I'm curious - I know, in a general sense, that alcohol "lowers inhibitions" - could this partially explain why some musicians (like my husband, lol) feel they are more creative and "write better" when they've had a drink or two (or twelve, depending on the musician LOL)? I'm not real clear on which parts of the brain alcohol has the most effects on.

If I am not mistaken, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the PFC doesn't fully "mature" until the mid-twenties or so.

By Susan Arick (not verified) on 15 Jul 2010 #permalink

"Children's inability to filter their learning allows them to impose order on variable, inconsistent input . . ."

How does an inability to filter allow babies to impose order?

Oh dear. What you're describing -- low PFC activity -- is essentially the core challenge of ADHD in children and adults.

I read Alison Gopnik's latest book as well as her bizarre review of Judith Warner's excellent book in Slate. (The comments are especially interesting.)

Gopnik might have some entertaining ideas--and maybe even some facts right--but she appears not well-grounded in the science and surely disconnected from the reality that is untreated ADHD for many people. In short, I would not take her cognitive advice on any count.

(I hate to say it, but her pseudo-intellectual, unempathic view of conditions such as ADHD and other neurocognitve disorders is common in San Francisco, which is sort of the Third World of informed treatment. So "liberal" in its thinking about "neurodiversity," it's utterly cruel.)

We know what the associations are with unaddressed ADHD symptoms: higher rates of early promiscuity, STDs, absentee parenting, bankruptcy, dropping out of high school/college, underemployment, underemployment, divorce, traffic accidents/citations, substance abuse disorders, obesity, and bankruptcy.

With all the global fallout from "creative risk-takers" taking unwise risks (for which we'll all be paying the price for decades), it's disturbing to me to see the prefrontal cortex held up as the enemy of "genius." Do we really need more grown-ups acting like three-year-olds, with no ability to delay gratification, stop harmful impulses, and think beyond the self?

It's a binary myth that one must be weak on the PFC front in order to be a genius. Jazz musicians are great. But we don't want them running the world, do we? Don't we have enough limbic systems running amok in the world? I'd rather look to the great thinkers, scientists, humanitarians, writers, diplomats, and others with strong PFC to pull us out of this mess.

Enough with the glamorizing of disinhibition, I say. And let's start praising and listening to the geniuses who can balance disinhibition with inhibition, and show some judgement about when each is appropriate. Balanced brains with a strong PFC.

Gina Pera, author
Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.?

Baudelaire was right: "Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will."

Ah, and what allows that recovery at will?

I'm no neuroscientist, but I'm thinking it's the PFC.

And that's the difference between people who can access disinhibition when it's needed and those for whom it's a constant biological imperative.

Many other parts of the brain have been implicated in ADHD studies, and the pathophysiology of this disease is not well understood. Specifically, I am unaware of any study that has demonstrated that PFC dysfunction is necessary or sufficient to cause ADHD, though I will agree that the hypothesis that the PFC plays a role in ADHD seems plausible. I would think that Gina would welcome these scientific studies that aim to elucidate the function of the PFC, rather than dismissing them as "glamorizing disinhibition". It's clear that there is more to the PFC than its implicated role in ADHD.

While I've not studied ADHD or neuroscience what I take from these brief posts is that it's about control. Someone with ADHD or a genius may lack control, but as an average person, can we learn to turn off or on certain parts of the brain to be more creative, to learn or function differently when the chosen activty calls for it?

i.e. not when we are making important lifes decisions or driving down the free way.

To respond to G. Pera, (whose book about ADD receives high praise), a discussion here regarding ADD seems off topic.
Gopnik's quotes many other research studies beside her own, for example she sites the 1996 research of Saffan, Aslin, and Newport of the University of Rochester, whose studies were similar to whose of that Newport conducted with Hudson-Kam. She sites a study by Fei Xu, a colleague at UC-Berkley, that demonstrates that 8 month olds understand the relation between a statistical sample and the population, Laura Schultz's work, at MIT, and the work Tamar Kushmir, now at Cornell to name but a few.

The condemnation of what "is common in San Francisco" hardly seems applicable to Gopnik article, "How Babies Think" .

By Ted Hoppe (not verified) on 16 Jul 2010 #permalink

Re: Jazz. Sounds suspiciously like Flow (being in the zone, etc.) as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Admittedly it would be a little problematic to get a fMRI reading from an athlete in action, but a writer might be more accessible.

By apparition13 (not verified) on 16 Jul 2010 #permalink

I'm interested in the other end of life - getting old and becoming child-like once more.
One of the comments I hear and read frequently when I interview older people is that they don't care what other people think anymore. They are more able to handle crisis because they think within a broader context than they did when younger. I'm curious as to whether this is down to wisdom and experience or whether the PFC of the brain shrinks maybe after a certain age - do we go backwards? Is this why some older people become more creative with age?

I have a long memory and a short attention span, just like my 6 year old son.

It's a terribly confusing combination.

I can focus for hours on an oil painting I'm composing, but I get bored easily with simple tasks, which people misunderstood as an inability to focus. All through my life, I'd failed successfully on work I'd detested, and I'd succeeded splendidly on work I'd loved.

When I see a sunrise in Camp Town, standing at the peak of South Point, where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic Ocean, I don't just see the sun rise, I see poetry, and I look into the time when the first bush-woman must have stood at the same spot and felt the same way as I did.

Ultimately it is self awareness, and for one to like oneself as what one is, and perhaps, will be.

My son and I, experience reality instinctively, which anchors us to the NOW. Sensationally, it is in flux always, but as long as you know how to interpret the inflows without getting overloaded, then it's all fine.

*enjoy enjoy*

Regarding the card experiment - I dont think this was the best example. In my experience raising kids, tell a child not to look at something, or to ignore it, then they will look at that exact one. Is this evidence of a beacon like focus or strongwilled curiosity?

I should have said lantern like*

I've seen that claim associated with William James, and something similar is certainly part of Piaget, but I've never heard Descartes had anything to say about babies. He didn't in what I read, certainly, but there's a lot I haven't read. I'd be interested in knowing which writing that came from.

Gina Pera: "Gopnik might have some entertaining ideas--and maybe even some facts right--but she appears not well-grounded in the science"

Gopnik might be wrong about a lot of things (I have no horse in the race), but to claim one of the most productive developmental researchers "not well-grounded in the science" is odd, to say the least.

Can I make my frontal part of the brain cooler (with ice) in order to be more creative? Have someone tried that?

I know this blog is no more, but to respond to this post: from personal experience in losing the ability to focus (thank you, menopause), what happens is the exact opposite of that described in this post. When you can't pay attention, you see only one thing at a time. Context is lost. Your mind flits to the picture, then to the frame. But when it flits to the frame, it has forgotten the picture. It is NOT taking everything in at once. On the other hand, paying attention--or being focused--requires that you hold the entire context of the thing being payed attention to in your mind all at once. E.g. in a conversation, when I pay attention, I don't just hear what you are saying right now, but I hear it in context to what I said before you and what you said previously and what conversation we had yesterday on the subject. When I can't focus, I lose precedent and nothing makes sense. Attention is the ability to follow a thread with ALL the contextual significances held in mind at the same time.

The brain emits a signal as soon as it sees something interesting, and that "aha" signal can be detected by an electroencephalogram, or EEG cap. While users sift through streaming images or video footage, the technology tags the images that elicit a signal, and ranks them in order of the strength of the neural signatures. Afterwards, the user can examine only the information that their brains identified as important, instead of wading through thousands of images. No existing computer vision systems connect with the human brain, and computers on their own don't do well at identifying unusual events or specific targets. "You cannot take a system that is intended to recognize faces and apply it to recognizing handwriting or identifying whether one object in a photo is behind another. Unlike a computer, which can perform a variety of tasks, a computer vision system is highly customized to the task it is intended to perform. They are limited in their ability to recognize suspicious activities or events."