Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Scientist in the Crib by Alison Gopnik *****

Any parent or grandparent of a child |age| < 3 should read The Scientist in the Crib by Alison Gopnik, et al. This is the child development classic that replaces Piaget.

This is a book about infant development written about the scientists in the field. What kind of experiments do these scientists do? Consider the question of nature vs nurture and the hypothesis that baby are born recognizing facial expressions and with enough self-knowledge to mimic them.

Think about this for a moment. What is the thought process to recognize that someone has stuck their tongue out (at you) and to find your own tongue ans stick it out in response? The involves visual processing, face recognition and parsing, muscle control ... a computer program to preforms this task is certainly non-trivial.

How would a scientist this hypothesis? First is the test setup where the baby is videotaped with random stimuli (sticking tongue out, wide open mouth, control). Observers blind to the stimuli rate the babies responses. Standard science stuff.

Also required is the dedicated scientist who is on call 24x7 to preform this strange test babies during their first day, even one as young as 42 minutes. Now that is science and scientific dedication. Conclusion: this complex skill is innate.

In the first years of life,  babies learn the most fundamental truths. They learn the external world is separate from them, other people think differently then they do, and language.

This well written, easy to read, insightful book has a dual focus on the experiments of both child scientists and child development scientists. The results are fascinating. For example, babies are born able to recognize the phonemes of every language, but by a year they specialize in their own language, whether it be Japanese, Swedish or English. In the beginning a baby will offer everyone Goldfish crackers regardless of that person's expressed (nonverbal, since these are pre-verbal subjects) preference, but at some point (15-18 months), the child happily offers broccoli ... even tough all children themselves prefer the crackers.

What can parents/grandparents learn from this research? Most important is that nature/nurture is a silly question. Evolution has designed the parent(caregiver)/child system to teach/learn - nurture is nature. OK, everyone check their internal light bulbs, smack their forehead, and in unison say, "Duh!"

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