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"Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will."
May 1, 2009 11:47 PM   Subscribe

There are times when having a fully developed brain can almost seem like an impediment. Are babies more aware of the world around them than adults are? Can "thinking like a baby" lead us to be more in tune with our creativity and our ability to learn? Scientists have taken a new look inside the baby mind, which is "unfocused, random, and extremely good at what it does."
posted by amyms (38 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Yes, almost an impediment. In that it's not an impediment.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:50 PM on May 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Babies brains are structurally different then adult brains. In particular they're wired up for language acquisition. You can't just "think like a baby".

Here's something to think about: As you know, lots of birds can sing. In one of my textbooks they gave an example of a kind of bird that could only sing during part of the year, and only one gender. It turns out that the part of the brain that delt with music would actually grow and shrink. And when they gave hormones to the females (I think) their brains grew and they could also sing.

The thing is, infant brains are actually different then adult brains. They can actually do some things that adult brains can't do at all. For example, they can recognize whether or not someone is speaking their native language by seeing their lips move (despite not being able to understand the language!). As they get older, their brains become wired for language acquisition, something that (I think) Adult brains usually lose.
posted by delmoi at 11:53 PM on May 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


While the pruning process makes the brain more efficient, it can also narrow our thoughts and make learning more difficult, as we become less able to adjust to new circumstances and absorb new ideas. In a sense, there's a direct trade-off between the mind's flexibility and its proficiency. As Gopnik notes, this helps explain why a young child can learn three languages at once but nevertheless struggle to tie his shoelaces.

Huh? What a strange paragraph. I'm sure we have no idea what that pruning process actually does to our thoughts, and children have trouble tieing their shoe laces because they lack fine motor skills that develop over time. IIRC the parts of the brain that actually handle those things are not even all that related.

It seems like they're trying to shoehorn a bunch of stuff into an extended metaphor (baby brains have a 'wider field of view') and tell us we can "think like a baby" by trying to pay attention to more extraneous details, etc. The point of which is to sell this scientists pop-science book.
posted by delmoi at 12:02 AM on May 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: There are times when having a fully developed brain can almost seem like an impediment.
posted by mazola at 12:02 AM on May 2, 2009 [5 favorites]


Good (and thought-provoking) points, delmoi.
posted by amyms at 12:05 AM on May 2, 2009


I'm so constantly frustrated by adult brains. Once in college, I was drinking with some friends out on a gently sloping roof. Someone spilled a beer, and the spill diverged into two paths, slowly running toward the roof's edge. As they did, I noticed they turned toward each other, then away from each other, then toward each other again, as though they were flirting and trying to connect but missing their opportunities. I wondered if they would get the chance to meet before they reached the edge. Thinking my friends would also appreciate this bit of summer-afternoon whimsy, I said "Hey! Do you guys think these two streams of beer are going to meet before they go off the edge of the roof?" and all I got back was "Who cares?"
posted by scrowdid at 12:14 AM on May 2, 2009 [7 favorites]


How does babby think?
posted by iSeanyboy at 12:29 AM on May 2, 2009


The problem is that the open mind also comes with an open sphincter.
posted by srboisvert at 1:57 AM on May 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


I vaguely remember being a very young child - my earliest memories start at about 1.5 years old - and the predominant impression that I retain is utter frustration. Nothing made any sense at all. Things would happen and I wouldn't know why - things would reoccur and I would think that it was a continuity. I explicitly recall when things started to coalesce, and it wasn't before age 5. I recall that a number of unexplained occurrences started to fall into place at about that time. There really is no way around waiting for your brain functions to mature - there's no amount of heavy thinking (which I know I did a lot of) at early ages that can compensate for that. I don't think I can ever forget the sheer frustration of toddlerhood.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 2:46 AM on May 2, 2009 [3 favorites]


How is babby mind formed?
posted by P.o.B. at 2:50 AM on May 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Creativity is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Babies may be more inspired (though I doubt it) but they certainly have a poor work ethic.
posted by DU at 3:23 AM on May 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


babies are prefect beings with an infinite knowledge of the universe. then they get stupid.
posted by geos at 3:56 AM on May 2, 2009


"We live in strange times.

"We also live in strange places: each in a universe of our own. The people with whom we populate our universes are the shadows of whole other universes intersecting with our own. Being able to glance out into this bewildering complexity of infinite recursion and say things like, 'Oh, hi, Ed! Nice tan. How's Carol?' involves a great deal of filtering skill for which all conscious entities have eventually to develop a capacity in order to protect themselves from the contemplation of the chaos through which they seethe and tumble. So give your kid a break, okay?"

Extract from Practical Parenting in a Fractally Demented Universe
posted by leibniz at 4:51 AM on May 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


The future may hold drugs which can briefly restore the plasticity of infancy. Might be useful for periods of intense learning.
posted by adipocere at 6:13 AM on May 2, 2009


The tone of this article is annoying. It's burdened by this thesis that baby brains are awesome and unappreciated, and spends its time hyping them, rather than just exploring the differences between adult and child brains, and explaining what role those differences play in different behaviors. It reminds me of some nature shows, which feel the need to say things like "white sharks are the ultimate predator". Oh yeah, how well do you think they'd do in the serengeti? Organisms generally are well-adapted for what they need to do, and poorly adapted for what they don't need to do. The wild plasticity of very young minds is fine because they don't know very much, so any new knowledge is good knowledge. As an adult, you already have a well-developed worldview, so extreme plasticity is much more likely to eradicate good information in exchange for bad.

That said, I think it was interesting. I don't remember very much of my early childhood, and what I have are fleeting images up until around 4-5 years old, so it's interesting to read about minds that work very differently from my own. I particularly liked the bit about young children being worse at remembering cards they were asked to pay attention to, but better at remembering cards they were asked to ignore. I think that fact says a lot on its own.
posted by Humanzee at 6:57 AM on May 2, 2009 [3 favorites]


Babies also have the very useful ability to breathe while swallowing, allowing them to nurse and not suffocate by aspirating their nourishment. Teach me how to do that and I will buy your book.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:16 AM on May 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


My wife has "baby thinking" when we watch sports together (God, that makes it sound like I'm about to erupt into a misogynistic screed here, but stay with me). She notices all kinds of things that are "not important" to the game -- action away from the ball, players' moods, the attitudes of coaches and players on the bench, crazy things fans are doing, etc. I think it is because she was not a huge sports fan growing up, and so she was not visually trained on sports the same way I was. I focus on the player with the ball or at bat, to the extent that I filter out all the other activity in front of my face. She sees it all as equal (or at least more equally than I do) and so is able to pick up on some really interesting (and sometimes consequential, in the context of the game at hand) things, like players who are injured but hiding it, players who have a bad attitude or have given up on the game for some reason, etc.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:15 AM on May 2, 2009


Scrowdid, I wasn't reading closely, and for a sec I thought you were describing your friends on the roof:

As they did, I noticed they turned toward each other, then away from each other, then toward each other again, as though they were flirting and trying to connect but missing their opportunities. I wondered if they would get the chance to meet before they reached the edge.
posted by scratch at 8:25 AM on May 2, 2009


"white sharks are the ultimate predator". Oh yeah, how well do you think they'd do in the serengeti?

Depends. Do they have frikkin' laserbeams strapped to their heads?

In the end it sounds to me like babby has A.D.D. Also, when I'm involved in an intense learning activity, I think I probably have a baby brain; it's certainly hyperactively noticing everything it can.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:28 AM on May 2, 2009


"white sharks are the ultimate predator". Oh yeah, how well do you think they'd do in the serengeti?

with tank treads on their bellies and lots of suntan lotion, they'd be invincible
posted by pyramid termite at 9:19 AM on May 2, 2009


they can recognize whether or not someone is speaking their native language by seeing their lips move (despite not being able to understand the language!)

Wait, what? I'm lost. Again. Does someone who doesn't understand any language even really have a native language? Or perhaps we're saying that they are able to recognize an adult speaking a second language...but how would we get this observation from a baby? All this from studying the density of brain tissue, neural connections, and eye movements? Do scientists now claim to also know what adults are thinking by applying these same methods?
posted by Hoopo at 9:23 AM on May 2, 2009


Hoopo - someone else can probably tell you more about tissue density and neural imaging, but yes, eyetracking is a pretty well established methodology for studying adult cognition, particularly language processing.

Simpler 'eyetracking' methodologies for infants are also not new - a basic version of this involves monitoring which of two screens the baby prefers to look at. The logical leap here is that if changing the linguistic input changes the picture the baby prefers to look at, the baby must have been able to tell the difference - if you don't know the words "bear" or "ball", you should keep looking at your favorite picture whether you hear "Look at the bear" or "look at the ball." Developmental labs are also using the video-based eyetracking technologies as well.

Also, I don't know anything about infant lipreading, but one cool thing about babies' speech perception is that they can discriminate between a much wider variety of speech-sound contrasts than adults can. They lose this ability as they learn what contrasts are present in the language[s] they are learning (e.g. English-learners stop being able to distinguish between aspirated and nonaspirated [p]). Delmoi, what age are the kids in the study you're referencing? I'd imagine this type of finding would occur only after babies are accustomed to the sounds of their native language (though very possibly before they display comprehension of that language).
posted by heyforfour at 10:14 AM on May 2, 2009


Does someone who doesn't understand any language even really have a native language?

Actually, yes:
Infants' sensitivity to the sound structure of the native language becomes finely honed during the first year. New studies confirm and extend this fact in the domains of phonetic, metrical, and grammatical processing. First, infants were tested on their ability to discriminate phonetic, but nonmeaningful differences in the native language. Although most 6- to 8-month olds discriminated [d] versus [t], 10- to 12-month olds did not. Thus, by 10–12 months, infants listen to only those phonetic differences that distinguish acceptable native-language syllabic shapes.
posted by LooseFilter at 10:18 AM on May 2, 2009


(and also what heyforfour said)
posted by LooseFilter at 10:19 AM on May 2, 2009


Rock Steady: I focus on the player with the ball or at bat, to the extent that I filter out all the other activity in front of my face. She sees it all as equal (or at least more equally than I do) and so is able to pick up on some really interesting (and sometimes consequential, in the context of the game at hand) things, like players who are injured but hiding it, players who have a bad attitude or have given up on the game for some reason, etc.

It's strange that the more we learn about something, the more we focus on the applicable and salient action point(s) or the place that drives the narrative in an experience, yet we lose perspective on other surrounding factors that can be crucial. As your wife illustrates so well, a pitcher or a coach, or anyone on the infield really, would find it important to know who was displaying fatigue or injury on the other team. but if they don't focus on the narrative and remain attentive they risk disaster (missed line drive or easy throw to a base for an out). Being open to everything as it were, dilutes the narrative and one may see the whole picture, but it it quickly becomes meaningless and without momentum, or at least that forward momentum that gives a constant bit of stimulus as we count down balls and strikes. It can be distracting. This whole baseball thing a really good metaphor, for what one needs to do to function at a high level. IE:, retain over all perspective and follow the narrative w/o getting too swept away by either. One, perspective helping as long term strategy and the other, the immediate narrative as the short term strategy that needs to be implemented. The long term strategy can inform the short term, but if the short term strategy doesn't execute it makes no difference.
posted by Skygazer at 10:22 AM on May 2, 2009


Once in college, I was drinking with some friends out on a gently sloping roof. Someone spilled a beer, and the spill diverged into two paths, slowly running toward the roof's edge.

Aw, I was hoping it was going to end with someone falling off the roof.

But I hear ya, brother. "Where do you come up with this shit?" "What makes you think of this shit?" "You've got too much time on your hands." Sometimes I've elicited horrified looks from girlfriends of friends when asking innocent questions like that. WTF?

Half the time I take it as a compliment, half the time it bugs the hell out of me.

Recently, my 4 year old had a moment of epiphany and explained to me how a moving bicycle generates its own apparent head wind. He nailed it, but it was incredibly weird the way he explained it in "baby" terms. He even dwelt on the fact that the wheels had to be turning, something as an adult I would think is given and would have completely left out of any such explanation.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 11:00 AM on May 2, 2009


...but he failed to mention the pedals, cogs, and chain make the wheels turn; so I gave him a paddlin' and 15 minutes on the naughty cushion.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 11:03 AM on May 2, 2009


baby brains are awesome and unappreciated

Seconding this. They taste like kimchi.
posted by ornate insect at 11:18 AM on May 2, 2009


It's burdened by this thesis that baby brains are awesome and unappreciated[...]

This is true. Be sure to buy some Kellogg's Shredded Baby Brain to sprinkle over your cereal!
posted by JHarris at 11:37 AM on May 2, 2009


So what is a four year-old's explanation of headwind? I'm curious to hear this incredibly weird explanation.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:13 PM on May 2, 2009


There are times when having a fully developed brain can almost seem like an impediment.

Being able to wipe your own ass and talk is not an impediment.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:33 PM on May 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


"The baby brain is perfectly designed for what it needs to do, which is learn about the worldfinding the tit."
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:19 PM on May 2, 2009


Read Eckhart Tolle (or for that matter almost anything on Buddhism. Thinking sucks.
posted by dancephotographer at 6:17 PM on May 2, 2009


Being able to wipe your own ass and talk is not an impediment.

I agree on the wiping of the ass, but the talking is not always a good thing (especially during those pesky teen years)... Reminds me of the adage: "We spend the first two years of our children's lives teaching them to walk and talk, then we spend the next 16 years telling them to sit down and shut up."
posted by amyms at 7:51 PM on May 2, 2009


The article contradicts some earlier work which shows that babies are stupid.
posted by knile at 9:16 PM on May 2, 2009


Would you rather have a brain that is extremely good at learning things but knows nothing, or a brain that knows lots of things but is less good at learning new ones? Babies are "smart" because they start with a blank slate. They have a dendritic bloom; a period where millions of neurons are born. Our brain is designed to hybridize between knowledge acquisition and retention. Sure, brand new big hard drive would be nice, but it's got nothing on it. As you write more and more files to it, it slows down a bit because files are fragmented and spread all across the medium. So yeah, you could learn a lot faster if you bought a new hard drive (since you can't defragment a brain), but then you'd lose all your stuff.
posted by Eideteker at 7:54 AM on May 3, 2009


Babies are far more open to learning than adults are. They also are completely fresh minded and do not have any preconceptions about things as adults do. This is why children tend to learn faster than adults.
posted by bennyzebs at 8:40 AM on May 3, 2009


So what is a four year-old's explanation of headwind? I'm curious to hear this incredibly weird explanation.

Not strictly a headwind - the apparent wind felt by the rider "created" by a moving bike.

I dunno. I expect 4 year olds to be simpletons in adult terms and more into discussing what leafy greens on their plate they're not going to eat tonight. And the randomness of when he burst into the discussion. Strewn with grammatical errors and the occasional mispronunciation. Now aren't you going to be late for that competition you're judging today?
posted by uncanny hengeman at 5:57 PM on May 3, 2009


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