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The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains, and How Children Learn

The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains, and How Children Learn

by Alison Gopnik, Patricia K. Kuhl, Andrew N. Meltzoff

This book combines two worlds — children and science — in an entirely unique way that yields exciting discoveries about both. The authors show that by the time children are three, they've solved problems that stumped Socrates with an agility computers still can't match. The Scientist in the Crib explains just how, and how much, babies and young


This book combines two worlds — children and science — in an entirely unique way that yields exciting discoveries about both. The authors show that by the time children are three, they've solved problems that stumped Socrates with an agility computers still can't match. The Scientist in the Crib explains just how, and how much, babies and young children know and learn, and how much parents naturally teach them. In fact, The Scientist in the Crib argues that evolution designed us to both teach and learn. Nurture is our nature, and the drive to learn is our most important instinct.

The new science of children also reveals insights about our adult capacities, helping to solve some ancient questions: How do we know there really is a world out there? How do we know that other people have minds like ours? It turns out that we find solutions to these problems when we are very small. But these astonishing capabilities don't disappear in later life, as the authors show in their engaging discussion of humans' potential for learning. In fact, they argue that even very young children — as well as adults use some of the same methods that allow scientists to learn so much about the world.

Written by three top scientists — themselves parents — who conducted much of the pioneering research in this field, The Scientist in the Crib is vivid, lucid, and often funny. Filled with surprises at every turn, it gives us a new view of the inner life of children and the mysteries of the mind.

Editorial Reviews

Chicago Tribune
The Scientist in the Crib is not just a catchy title. To the authors of this excellent book on cognition in infancy, babies are like scientists in being motivated--driven even--to try to understand the world around them....The uthors are doting parents as well as eminent developmental psychologists. A major strength of the book is the seamless integration of their parental love of babies with their scientific knowledge about the development of infants. The reader will reap the benefit of their articulate, affectionate portrayal of infant cognition. We needed this book; the timing of its publication couldn't be better....The book...is informative and entertaining.
Washington Post
Meticulously researched, combining charm and erudition, humor and humanity, The Scientist in the Crib...should be placed in the hands of teachers, social workers, therapists, policymakers, expectant parents and everyone else who cares about children....This book is full of enchanting revelations.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Although Gopnik, Meltzoff and Kuhl have each conducted groundbreaking research into the cognitive development of infants and its philosophical implications, this book evokes less excitement than their more straightforward research. With breathless enthusiasm, the authors review recent findings in developmental psychology and explain, in a tone somewhat self-consciously aimed at the "lay reader," their hopes that they will help answer fundamental philosophical questions. They focus on Kuhl's work in early infant phonetic recognition and language acquisition, Meltzoff's work on imitation in infants and Gopnik's exploration of philosophical development in infants, as well as other important work in the field. How do babies learn? they ask, answering that "they are born knowing a great deal, they learn more and we are designed to teach them." They also give refreshing emphasis to the evolutionary basis for infant-caregiver interactions. For example, they explain that "motherese" -- the high-pitched, slightly louder than normal speech with elongated and articulated consonants and vowels -- is not only preferred by babies but also optimally suited to their developing auditory systems. It's ironic, though, that these authors, who from the first pages decry ill-informed condescension to children, should be themselves so unthinkingly condescending in their tone and presentation: "children and scientists," they repeatedly aver, "are the best learners in the world."
Library Journal
Babies solve problems in exactly the same way that scientists work -- by repeatedly testing "hypotheses" against real occurrences, then modifying their initial theories to fit reality better. The three authors -- all parents as well as noted specialists in infant development -- use this idea to organize their summary of research on cognitive development in early childhood. Chapters cover the development of language, of understanding, and of minds and brains (the "software" and "hardware" of cognition). The authors do a good job of staying appropriately neutral on the big political issues of childcare and emphasize that this is not a book of child-rearing advice. It is instead a readable, concise summary of the recent explosion of research on early childhood development. Recommended for public and undergraduate libraries.
A trio of professional baby watchers from the U. of California, Berkeley and the U. of Washington share with parents as well as other academics, research insights about children's truly amazing development as problem solvers. Includes 38 pages of references.
Kirkus Reviews
An informal and entertaining yet authoritative look at the science of babies' minds. The three research psychologists, all of whom are parents, and two of whom, Meltzoff and Kuhl, are married to each other, write about child development as though they were speaking directly to parents they know. As their title indicates, the authors find parallels between babies and scientists: both, they say, formulate theories, make and test predictions, seek explanations, do experiments, and revise what they know based on new evidence. They show specifically how babies learn about people and objects, and how they acquire language. Their second analogy likens the baby's brain to a biological computer designed by evolution and possessing at birth powerful programs ready to run. From the beginning, the infant's brain is able to translate information from the world into representations that experience then enables it to modify into more complex and abstract representations. As babies interact with the world, they reprogram themselves with even more powerful and accurate programs. Everything a baby sees, hears, smells, tastes, or touches affects its brain's wiring, and other people—parents, siblings, caregivers—naturally and mostly unconsciously promote and influence these changes. The authors conclude that artificial interventions, such as using flash cards or classical music tapes to create a smarter baby are at best useless and at worst distractions from normal interactions. We do not, they say, need experts to tell us how to raise our children, but we are losing the time and the opportunity to do what parents have always done—exercise their innate ability to teach their children.Solutions to that problem, they caution, are best provided by a scientifically well-educated citizenry, hence the present work. An exceptionally readable and reassuring guide. (For a highly critical view of current interpretations of brain science, see John T. Bruer's The Myth of the First Three Years, p. TKTK.) (Author tour)

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.01(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Ancient Questions and a Young Science

Walk upstairs, open the door gently, and look in the crib. What do you see? Most of us see a picture of innocence and helplessness, a clean slate. But, in fact, what we see in the crib is the greatest mind that has ever existed, the most powerful learning machine in the universe. The tiny fingers and mouth are exploration devices that probe the alien world around them with more precision than any Mars rover. The crumpled ears take a buzz of incomprehensible noise and flawlessly turn it into meaningful language. The wide eyes that sometimes seem to peer into your very soul actually do just that, deciphering your deepest feelings. The downy head surrounds a brain that is forming millions of new connections every day. That, at least, is what thirty years of scientific research have told us.

This book is about that research. What are these deeply familiar yet surprisingly strange creatures we call children really like? Of course, human beings have always wondered, pondered, and even agonized about their children. But most of the time, the questions people ask are practical. Some are immediate, questions about how to get them to eat more or cry less. Some are long-term, questions about how to turn them into the right kind of grown-ups. These are important questions, crucial for the survival of any civilization (not to mention any parent), but we won't have very much to say about them. This book won't tell you how to make babies easier or smarter or nicer, or how to get them to go to sleep or to Harvard. There are lots of books that do that, or anyway say they do, right between the cooking andhouse-repairs sections in your local bookstore. Our questions are both harder and easier than the practical questions. We want to understand children, not renovate them.

While the purported answers to the practical questions fill volumes, all of us who have lived with babies and young children, or even just looked at them, have found ourselves asking deeper questions. We decided to become developmental psychologists and study children because there aren't any Martians. These brilliant beings with the little bodies and big heads are the closest we can get to a truly alien intelligence (even if we may occasionally suspect that they are bent on making us their slaves). Babies are fascinating, mysterious, and just plain weird. Watch awhile. A three-month-old catches sight of the stripes on a shopping bag and follows it carefully as her father carries it around the room, staring with intense cross-eyed concentration. A one-year-old visiting the zoo points at the elephant and says triumphantly and with great certainty, "Doggie!" A "terrible two-year-old" turns toward the expressly forbidden switch of the computer and slowly, deliberately, watching his mother every moment, erases the day's work. As we change diapers and wipe noses, all of us, no matter how preoccupied, find ourselves exclaiming, "What's going on in that little head of hers? Where on earth did he get that from?"

Developmental psychologists have had the luxury of asking those questions systematically and even getting answers to them. We're actually starting to understand what's going on in that little head of hers and where on earth he got that from.

Studying babies is full of fascination in its own right. But developmental research also helps answer a more general, deep, and ancient question, not just about babies but about us. We human beings, no more than a few pounds of protein and water, have come to understand the origins of the universe, the nature of life, and even a few things about ourselves. No other animal, and not even the most sophisticated computer, knows as much. And yet every one of us started out as the helpless creature in the crib. Only a few tiny flickers of information from the outside world reach that creature -- a few photons hitting its retinas, some sound waves vibrating at its eardrums -- and yet we end up knowing how the world works. How do we do it? How did we get here from there?

The new research about babies holds answers to those questions, too. It turns out that the capacities that allow us to learn about the world and ourselves have their origins in infancy. We are born with the ability to discover the secrets of the universe and of our own minds, and with the drive to explore and experiment until we do. Science isn't just the specialized province of a chilly elite; instead, it's continuous with the kind of learning every one of us does when we're very small.

Trying to understand human nature is part of human nature. Developmental scientists are themselves engaged in the same enterprise and use the same cognitive tools as the babies they study. The scientist peering into the crib, looking for answers to some of the deepest questions about how minds and the world and language work, sees the scientist peering out of the crib, who, it turns out, is doing much the same thing. No wonder they both smile.

The Ancient Questions

How can we know so much when our senses are so limited? This problem -- the problem of knowledge -- is one of the oldest and most profound problems of philosophy. The branch of philosophy called epistemology is devoted to it. Three versions of the problem are especially important and puzzling to grown-ups and children alike. We'll call them the Other Minds problem, the External World problem, and the Language problem. The new developmental psychology helps answer all three.

Take a perfectly ordinary event. Every Sunday night, we sit around the dinner table. We serve up healthy leek and potato soup (which must be eaten before you get dessert), pass the salt and pepper, butter the bread, push our chairs back from the big wooden table. We laugh, fight, and tease one another. One of the big brothers invariably makes a rude joke at the expense of the little brother, who is hurt and demands an apology. No experience could be more banal, more domestic, more comfortable and familiar. Except that, actually, we don't experience any of this at all...

The Scientist In The Crib. Copyright © by Alison Gopnik. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are Saying About This

T. Berry Brazelton
This book is a valuable addition to parents' libraries. It clearly delineates the way small infants and children learn. After reading it, parents can be enthralled as they watch their new babies imitate, learn the 'rules' of communication, and of speech learning. What an interesting book by three eminent 'baby-watchers'!

Meet the Author

Alison Gopnik, Ph.D. is a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley and a leading cognitive scientist. She is past president of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology and is the author of more than seventy papers on philosophy, psychology, and children's early learning. She has also written for The New York Review of Books and The Times Literary Supplement. Mother of three, she lives with her family in Berkeley, California.

Andrew N. Meltzoff, Ph.D. revolutionized the field of child psychology with his discoveries about how much infants know, learn, and remember. He is a professor of psychology and the University of Washington, and his research has been featured in Time, The New York Times, and museum exhibits worldwide. He and his wife, Dr. Kuhl, live with their daughter in Seattle, Washington.

Patricia K. Kuhl, Ph.D. is the world's leading authority on speech development and is a professor of speech and hearing at the University of Washington. She was one of six scientists invited to present their research at the White House Conference on Early Learning and the Brain in 1997. Her recent findings on language acquisition and why parents speak "motherese" to their children made national headlines. She and her husband, Dr. Meltzoff, live in Seattle.

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