What’s Inside a Big Baby Head?

New research brings surprising revelations.

What’s going on inside a baby’s bulbous head? We ask the same question about our pets, but the frustrating thing about babies is that we once knew: We all once looked out at the world through those adorably large baby eyes.

In The Philosophical Baby, Alison Gopnik writes that developmental psychologist John Flavell once told her that he would give up all his degrees and honors for just five minutes in the head of a 2-year-old. I would give up a month of my life for those five minutes—and two months for five minutes as an infant.

In the absence of magic, we are left with the imperfect tools of developmental psychology—observation and experiment, hypothesis and guesswork. The science of baby consciousness is a central topic of Gopnik’s new book. One of the most prominent researchers in the field, Gopnik is also one of the finest writers, with a special gift for relating scientific research to the questions that parents and others most want answered. This is where to go if you want to get into the head of a baby.

Almost nobody believes anymore that infants are insensate blobs. It seems both mad and evil to deny experience and feeling to a laughing gurgling creature. Still, there has to be some point in development when consciousness isn’t present, and though it is logically possible that it just switches on in a single instant—boom, the fetus or embryo goes from a parsnip to a person—it fits better with what we know about both development and consciousness that it emerges gradually. Since there is nothing neurologically special about the moment of leaving the uterus, this process most likely continues after birth. Perhaps babies are less conscious than we are or have some features of consciousness but not others. William James, for instance, famously claimed that the mental life of a baby is “one great blooming buzzing confusion.”

Gopnik’s own view is a clever and counterintuitive twist on James. She argues that babies aremore conscious than adults. Her conclusion is based on the study of how attention and inhibition—the capacity to block out distractions—evolve over the course of development. Adult attention is willful and endogenous. Although it can be captured by external events—we will turn if we hear a loud noise—we also have control over what to think about and what to attend to. By sheer will, we can choose to focus on our left foot, then think about what we had for breakfast, then focus on … whatever we want. Adults are also blessed, to varying degrees, with the power to ignore distractions, both external and internal, and to stay focused on a single task.

This is all harder for babies and young children. They are largely at the mercy of the environment. Simple experiments demonstrate that babies are, for the most part, trapped in the here and now, a conclusion supported by the finding that the part of the brain responsible for inhibition and control, the prefrontal cortex, is among the last to develop. Gopnik uses the example of an adult being dumped into the middle of a foreign city, knowing nothing about what’s going on, with no goals and plans, constantly turning to see new things, and struggling to make sense of it all. This is what it’s like to be a baby—only more so, since even the most stressed adult has countless ways of controlling attention: We can look forward to lunch, imagine how we would describe this trip to friends, and so on. The baby just is. It sounds exhausting, which might explain why infants spend so much of their time sleeping or (like some travelers) fussing.

For Gopnik, this lack of inhibition and control is a gift. It makes babies and children ideally suited for the task of acquiring information about physical and social reality. When it comes to imagination and learning, their openness to experience makes them “superadults”—not just smart but smarter than we are. She’s particularly interested in the power to think about alternate realities, other possible worlds. In several fascinating chapters, she explores how this power is manifested in children’s play and in their creation of imaginary companions, plausibly arguing that the capacity to reason about worlds that do not exist is crucial to children’s rapid learning about everything from cause-and-effect relationships to human behavior. Gopnik suggests that their neural immaturity gives them greater imaginative powers than adults have: She proclaims, “Children are the R&D department of the human species—the blue-sky guys, the brainstormers. Adults are production and marketing. They [children] think up a million new ideas, mostly useless, and we take the three or four good one and make them real.”

This is romantic and optimistic, but it is true? Well, not literally: Intellectual and cultural progress does not consist of taking the ideas of children and making them real, and there’s no obvious sense in which children are better at thinking up new things than adults. Nor is there any reason to think that they should be. To some extent, a wandering mind is indeed a good thing. You can escape from a rut, make intuitive leaps. But for the most part, the ingredients of creative accomplishment are more prosaic—including the accumulation of knowledge, hours and hours of focused practice, and sustained attention. Imagination tends to be truly useful if accompanied by the power of mental control—if the worlds in one’s head can be purposefully manipulated and distinguished from the real one outside it. Babies probably can’t do this; young children can but with occasional difficulty. Meanwhile, we adults immerse ourselves in the rich and complex worlds of novels, television, and movies and create our own worlds through daydreams and fantasy. The unromantic truth may be that adults are the best pretenders of all, and that children would be better off if the prefrontal cortex matured more quickly.

In fact, there is evidence that before that maturation takes place, children may well avail themselves of something as amazing as the openness Gopnik celebrates: hard-wired systems of understanding that help give structure to an otherwise overwhelming experience of the world. One focus of recent research has been on “naive physics”: Studies have shown that babies know that objects continue to exist once out of sight and that those objects are solid and cohesive and subject to gravity. And that’s not all: Babies understand cause-and-effect relationships. They can figure out simple addition and subtraction.

There has also been considerable focus in recent years on babies’ and toddlers’ understanding of other people—”naive psychology” or “theory of mind.” For instance, a now classic set of studies found that 15-month-olds know enough about other people to make sense of their false beliefs. Some more recent studies  I’ve done in collaboration with Kiley Hamlin and Karen Wynn at Yale have found that 6-month-olds, after witnessing people interact with one another, are capable of subtle social evaluation; they prefer to interact with whoever helped the other person achieve his goals than with the person who thwarted the other’s goals.

In her zeal to emphasize learning, Gopnik downplays the role of these unlearned systems. For her, theories that emphasize our genetic endowment are incompatible with the fact that humans, as societies and individuals, have the capacity for change. But this is a false dichotomy. Empty heads, cognitive science has taught us, learn nothing. The powerful cultural and personal flexibility of our species is owed at least in part to our starting off so well-informed; we are good learners because we know what to pay attention to and what questions are the right ones to ask. As Gopnik herself points out in her discussion of possible worlds, “knowledge is actually what gives imagination its power, what makes creativity possible.”

Nobody knows how much of what babies understand is conscious. But these findings suggest that William James was wrong that the mental life of a baby is a chaotic mess, and they help explain why Gopnik is right to be awed at an infant’s creative prowess. Perhaps looking out through big baby eyes—if we could—would not be as revelatory experience as many imagine. We might see a world inhabited by objects and people, a world infused with causation, agency, and morality—a world that would surprise us not by its freshness but by its familiarity.