What is my child thinking?

What is my child thinking?

[Excerpt from Rat of the Highway]

Joel Werner: So can you say your name for me?

Finn: Finn. I'm the Rat of the Highway.

Joel Werner: Okay. Hey, Rat of the Highway, what are you thinking about at the moment?

Lynne Malcolm: That's three-year-old Finn telling his dad Joel that he's also Rat of the Highway just like his latest favourite TV show character. Finn also has foxes on his mind.

Hi, it's All in the Mind on RN, I'm Lynne Malcolm, and today we explore how babies and young children think.

Joel Werner: What do you know about foxes?

Finn: They sneak all night. And they say [howls]. And the Rat of the Highway.

Joel Werner: What do you think foxes eat?

Joel Werner: Do you think they would eat crackers?

Finn: Because they don't like crackers.

Joel Werner: What do you think they'd like then?

Finn: Ah, they might eat leaves, okay, that sounds good.

Alison Gopnik: I think that what it's like to be a baby is it's like being in love in Paris for the first time after you've had four double espressos, which is a very nice way to feel in some ways but it does mean that you tend to wake up at 3 o'clock in the morning crying.

Lynne Malcolm: Alison Gopnik is a Professor of Psychology and Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. She studies how children's minds work. She says we need to let kids be kids because they're brilliant, and we have a lot to learn from them. She explained to me that our understanding of what's in an infant's mind has significantly changed over the last 3 or 4 decades.

Alison Gopnik: So 30 or 40 years ago, people thought that babies' minds were a blank slate or a blooming buzzing confusion. Even the great developmental psychologist Jean Piaget thought that babies were irrational and amoral and egocentric, didn't understand very much about the world. And in the past 30 years or so we've discovered that just the opposite of that is true. In many respects even the youngest babies are smarter even than grown-ups. They think, they make up theories, they try to figure out how the world works, and they pay attention to other people and try to understand things about what's going on in other people's minds.

In the work that we've done most recently we can actually show that in some respects babies and young children are actually not only much smarter than we ever thought before but smarter than grown-ups are.

Alison Gopnik: And you were one of the founders in the research field of theory of mind in relation to children's development. Can you just explain that theory of mind?

Alison Gopnik: Yes, so when psychologists talk about theory of mind, what they mean is our everyday understanding of what's going on in the minds of other people. If you think about it, if you look around a room of other people, what you actually see are a bunch of bags of skin that are stuffed into pieces of cloth, and yet of course that's crazy. What we see are people with thoughts and desires and wants and feelings just like ours, and the question is how do we ever figure that out? And in particular how do children figure that out? So how do children go from just seeing these bodies around them and figuring out that they all have minds?

Lynne Malcolm: And how did you investigate whether babies and young children think about what's in the minds of others, and is it the case for babies? I mean, normally you'd ask, say, a three-year-old child what they are thinking and you'd get this very cute rambling story. So how did you test that in the lab?

Alison Gopnik: So one of the questions, one of the reasons why we've changed our mind so much about what babies and young children are like is because we figured out new ways of asking them what they think in their language instead of in our language.

So, for instance, one of the things that we were wondering about was when would children understand that I could want one thing and you could want another thing? When could they start in a simple way to take the perspective of another person? And we know that perspective-taking like that is very important for our adult morality and our adult social competence. And the wisdom was that this was something that children couldn't do until quite late in development, and we thought maybe it was because we were asking them the question the wrong way.

So my student Betty Repacholi and I designed an experiment where what we did was to show the children two bowls of food; one bowl of raw broccoli and one bowl of goldfish crackers. And all of the children, even in Berkeley, liked the crackers more than they liked the broccoli. But then what we did was show them somebody else taking a little bit of food from each bowl and either acting as if they made a kind of disgusted face—oh yuk, I tasted the crackers—or a happy face—oh, I tasted the crackers. And what that did was give the children information about what the person liked. Did they like the crackers or the broccoli. So then babies had to figure out from that facial expression what was the person's preference.

And then what we did was we actually gave the babies the two bowls of food and the experimenter would put her hand out, Betty would put her hand out and say, 'Can you give me some?' And the question is would they give her the crackers, which was what they liked…so when a situation where she said, 'Oh yum, broccoli. Oh yuk, crackers,' so she acted as if her desire was different from theirs, what would they do? Would they understand that and how would they react?

And what we discovered was that with the younger babies, the 15-month-olds, they would always give her the crackers, whether it looked like she liked the crackers or not. So they didn't seem to be able to understand that anyone could be crazy to like raw broccoli more than little cheesy crackers. But by the time the children were two, by the time they were 24 months old, they seemed to have understood and appreciated the fact that maybe I could want something different from you. So they would give her the crackers if it looked like she liked the crackers, but they would give her the broccoli if it seemed as if she liked the broccoli.

So that's important for several reasons. One thing is that it means that these very young children already understood something about other people's minds, it means that they weren't egocentric, they could take the perspective of another person, and it means that they were also altruistic, they thought that if you could figure out what someone wanted you should give them what they wanted. And there's a whole lot of other really beautiful work that has been done that's shown even 18- and 20-month-olds already are showing this kind of altruism, this impulse to help other people get what they want.

And another thing that's interesting in that study is that the children seem to have actually learned this in their experience between about 15 months and 24 months, they seem to actually have learned something about how other people work.

Lynne Malcolm: And it's in quite a short space of time, isn't it, they've learned so much in a matter of six months or so.

Alison Gopnik: Exactly. So one of the things that I always say is…my first book, it's called The Scientist in the Crib, and it was about the idea that children are like little scientists. But in six months they can do a revolution that would take scientists 100 years and several generations. They can really change their minds, think about the world in a really different way, just as a result of their experience of what's going on around them.

Lynne Malcolm: And you've also done some work looking at how children behave as if they are a scientist. They run hypotheses, they test hypotheses. Just give me an example of what you've seen children do there.

Alison Gopnik: So, once we have this idea about the children being like little scientists, the question is, well, what is it that scientists do that lets them learn as much as they do? Two things that scientists do, one thing is they look at statistics and then they use the statistical patterns to figure out causal patterns. They use the statistics to figure out how the world works.

Now, it might seem like even grown-ups have a terrible time with statistics, if you've ever taken a statistics class, but that may be because we've been asking people about statistics the wrong way. So what we did with the children was we actually showed them a little machine, a Blicket machine we call it, a Blicket detector. It's a little box and it lights up when you put some things on it but not other things. And there's different kinds of principles about what it takes to make the machine light up. And what we do is just show the children a bunch of blocks making the machine go, and the statistical pattern about which block goes on when and what happens is a clue to how the machine works.

And then what we can do is just ask the children is this block a Blicket or not. Or we can ask them to just make the machine go, and we can see if they've used that data, like a good scientist, to figure out what's going on underneath. And what we found is that even very young children are already incredibly good at solving these kinds of tasks. They can use probabilities, they can use conditional probabilities, and they can even figure out pretty abstract things about how the machine works. And in some experiments, for some things the children are actually better than grown-ups.

And there's no denying that this is a distinctly scientific discussion between three-year-old Finn and his science broadcaster dad, Joel Werner.

Joel Werner: Do you want to play a game?

Joel Werner: Okay, so do you know what this is?

Joel Werner: It's a microphone but do you know what it is in this game? It's a special troll detector. So this machine can tell me when trolls are near.

Joel Werner: Do you want me to look and see if there's any trolls nearby?

Joel Werner: Okay. [gasp] It says there's three trolls in this apartment right now.

Joel Werner: No, they're here, the machine's saying they are here. Where do you think they could be hiding?

Joel Werner: No, they're right here in our house now.

Finn: No, they've gone away, they make a tunnel.

Joel Werner: Where did they make a tunnel?

Joel Werner: Oh. Shall we go and have a look?

Finn: Yeah, but they're not there. Let's try. Let's telescope and see where they are.

Joel Werner: Oh, the cardboard tube telescope can see the trolls, I like it.

Finn: They're going this way, the footprints are leading this…

Joel Werner: Okay, the footprints are leading into the bathroom…

Finn: Look, they're not there.

Joel Werner: [Gasp] But wait, what's that on the wall? Is that the opening to a troll tunnel?

Joel Werner: Should we go through it?

Finn: Because it's just a pretend one.

Joel Werner: Okay. What are other clues that the trolls have been here? What can you see in the room?

Finn: There's a hole in the toilet.

Joel Werner: There's a hole in the toilet? Oh no. What other clues can you see that would let us know that trolls are around?

Finn: There is a tunnel there and it's leading that way.

Joel Werner: Are there any footprints?

Finn: There's footprints out there. Oh, the footprints are there.

Joel Werner: Can you see any troll slime around?

Joel Werner: Oh, I wonder why, why there is no slime around?

Finn: Maybe they went somewhere else. The trolls went to Thomas and Oscar's house.

Joel Werner: Oh, they went next door did they? Okay. Should we go and have a look?

Finn: No, we have to stay because we can't go over. We have to go over with Mum.

You're with All in the Mind on RN, I'm Lynne Malcolm, today delving into the mind of an infant.

Alison Gopnik, Professor in Psychology and Philosophy from University of California, Berkeley, studies how babies' and young children's minds work. In fact, she likens children's brains to the most powerful computers on the planet.

Alison Gopnik: Yes, so one of the things that we're doing now is we are collaborating with people in computer science at Berkeley and elsewhere because the big advances in artificial intelligence, the things that there has been so much excitement about, have all been because we've figured out ways to actually design machines that could learn. But the machines that learn, even the most powerful ones, the ones that can learn how to do things like play chess or can figure out cats and dogs on the internet, those machines are still terribly primitive compared to even the simplest, the youngest baby or child.

So what those machines can do is take an enormous amount of data and pull out a statistical pattern from the data. But what they can't do is think up new ideas or understand things abstractly or make up possibilities that are not in any of the data that they originally saw, and children with much less data, with much less information, are doing a much better job of thinking up new ways that the world could be, understanding something like that a machine could work in an unusual, strange kind of way.

And what we are trying to do now is figure out what is it that's going on in the children's minds that let them do that and could we use that as a clue for how to design smarter computers? So one of the other things that children do that's kind of like what scientists do, they do experiments, they actually go out and try and get information about the things that they want to find out about. But when they do the experiments we call it getting into everything or playing, and one of the things that we know about babies is that they are just insatiably curious, you know, even at the risk of their survival, they will just to get into everything and try and figure it out.

And experiments that we've done and other people have done have shown that when they are just playing around they are actually doing just the right kinds of things that they need to do to figure out a task. So one of the things that people are doing now is trying to design curiosity based artificial intelligence that work by just intrinsically trying to figure out how things in the world work. In some ways the AIs that we have now are a bit like children who have a very controlling 'Tiger Mom' because they have a programmer who's saying 'do this and do that and now you're doing better and now you're doing worse', and that's not what kids are like. Kids are doing most of their learning just running off by themselves and playing and exploring. And if you wanted to get a system that really had the kind of intelligence of humans, that's the kind of system you need.

Lynne Malcolm: So you are observing the way children think and applying that to develop more sophisticated AI.

Alison Gopnik: That's exactly right. So one of the big granting agencies in the United States, DARPA, which is one of the places where the computer was first invented, just have sent out a call to get people like me who study babies and computer scientists together, the first time that those two groups have really been interacting, to try to see what the next horizons are.

Lynne Malcolm: And you've suggested that babies and young children and adults have a different style of consciousness. Can you describe that different style?

Alison Gopnik: Yes, so I think the new work suggests that there is a child intelligence. It's really different in many respects from adult intelligence. One way that people talk about this in computer science and neuroscience, there's a difference between exploration and exploitation. So the kind of intelligence that you need to get things done, to act swiftly, effectively the way grown-ups do, is really different from the kind of intelligence you need to just figure out how the world works, find out as much as you can about what's going on around you. So to be an adult, it's really a good idea, for instance, to have very focused attention, just pay attention to the things that are important and ignore everything else that's going on around you.

And we can show that grown-ups actually are literally blind to the things that they are not paying attention to. If you're paying attention to one thing you won't see anything else that's going on around you. When we look at babies and young children, what we see is a much more distributed way of being in the world. They are interested in and perceiving much more of the world. A way that you could think of it is if you think about adult consciousness as being like a spotlight, it's just lighting up a particular part of the world, the baby's consciousness is more like a lantern. It's illuminating everything that is going on around it. And there has been some lovely studies that have shown, for instance that children are better than adults at remembering something that they haven't attended to. So adults are better than children…if you tell them, okay, remember what colour the card was, they'll be better. But if there's something else on the card, you know, there's a little heart in the corner and you don't point that out to the adult, they just forget about it, whereas the children will actually remember even the thing that they weren't paying attention to.

Lynne Malcolm: So human children have a much longer period of being dependent and helpless almost than other species. What can evolution tell us about the value of having this really extended dependence?

Alison Gopnik: Well, it turns out that there is a relationship between how long a period of childhood an animal has and how large a brain they have, basically how smart they are. And we are kind of the best example of that. And the idea is that if you think about this trade-off between exploration and exploitation, a creature like us that relies on learning needs to have this protected time, this period when all they have to do is explore, not worry about food, not worry about actually succeeding, not worry about getting on in the world. And that exploratory period is what we call childhood. And interestingly when people are designing computers, they have to also resolve this explore/exploit trade-off, and one way of doing it that comes up again and again is start out by exploring, start out by considering lots of possibilities, and only later narrow in to just the things that are going to turn out to be most important. And evolution seems to have used that kind of strategy—first explore, then exploit—in creating babies.

Lynne Malcolm: So there's a really good argument for allowing children to be children for as long as they need to be.

Alison Gopnik: Absolutely. So one of the bitter ironies of being a child psychologist lately has been for the last 30 years we've been telling everybody, look, these children are so brilliant and they learn so much, understand so much. And often when you say that, the message that people take is, oh, we should put them in school, we should make preschools more like schools, we should give them flashcards or train them the way that we do in school. And in fact the message is just the opposite. The message is, if anything, you'd want school to be more like preschool, that it's the natural play and exploration in a safe setting with people who love you, that's the context in which young children are learning the most. And certainly before about six in the preschool kind of period, that kind of wide ranging exploration and play seems to be the secret to being able to use these amazing learning abilities that we see in young children.

Lynne Malcolm: So what is the potential for using some of your research findings in that way to inform and apply to our approaches to childcare and to schooling, to education?

Alison Gopnik: Yes, exactly. I mean, I think we have some very, very good models of things that people sometimes call enquiry-based education or Montessori schools. My personal favourite is the Reggio Emilia program. These have been around for 50 years and I think intuitively good preschool teachers understand that when children are playing and when they are exploring, that's when they are learning the most. But I think often those teachers are kind of caught in a pincer movement between the parents who really want their children to do well and the policymakers who want to have a measure, a standardised test that they can use to show that it's worthwhile investing in young children.

And what the science says is that that kind of standardised test is not catching the thing that is what children are doing, what children's play and exploration are doing is enabling them to be creative and to be resilient. Those are things that are kind of hard to measure in a standardised way. But I think we've now got some really good evidence that it's that creativity and resilience that gives the children the great start that will let them continue to thrive later on.

Lynne Malcolm: So there must be lots of things that adults can learn from children in terms of being more open minded, learning, imagination, creativity. How can adults retain some of those qualities?

Alison Gopnik: It's important to say I am obviously really sympathetic with the babies but of course you wouldn't want a baby to be running your faculty department or your country, you want people who have that ability to focus and to exploit and to make things happen. But even for adults, one of the things particularly for human adults is that we go back and forth from being in that state of, okay, now we are really focused on just getting things done to being able to consider a wider range of options. And some the things that we do with children, like putting them in a safe space where they don't have to worry about outcomes right away, those are the sort of things that seem to enable adults to be able to explore. So a university or a science department, it really is kind of like a preschool for grown-ups, it's a safe place where you can play and you can find things out. Another thing is getting back to not knowing too much. Part of the reason why children can learn so much is because they don't know very much to begin with. They have much more open minds.

Lynne Malcolm: So it's putting yourself in new situations as adults and challenging yourself.

Alison Gopnik: Exactly. I think another thing is hanging out with babies is a really good idea. So I have three grandchildren now who are seven and five and four, and if you spend time with a four-year-old, you will get your mind expanded because you can get to participate in that kind of wild, crazy place where nothing is quite what you would have thought in the first place.

Lynne Malcolm: And here's three-year-old Finn again. He tells his dad Joel what's in the sky above the leaves on the trees.

Joel Werner: Yeah, we jump straight to space. And what can you tell me about space?

Joel Werner: Why does everyone float in space?

Finn: Because it has gravity and they float and float, and they go far away.

Joel Werner: Can you tell me how gravity works?

Finn: Gravity sucks things down to the Earth.

Joel Werner: Yeah, that's exactly right. And so what happens when you go off into space?

Joel Werner: That's cool. I'd like to do that floaty space flying around one day.

Finn: Yeah, but you need to go in a rocketship to get there. They go five, four, three, two, one, blast off! Then they go to different planets.

Joel Werner: Right, okay, so what are the planets?

Finn: He's the dwarf planet, he lives in the dwarf planet. The dwarf planet is really far away.

Joel Werner: And why can't we go to the Sun?

Finn: Because the Sun is really, really hot, so we can't get cold, we have to stay warm in the sun.

Joel Werner: And what else can you tell me about space? What's beyond the planets?

Joel Werner: Aliens? What do the aliens look like, do you think?

Finn: They have three eyes and some have two and some have one.

Joel Werner: And do they speak like we speak? Like, if you met an alien, could you just go, 'Hello,' and it would go, 'Hello Finn,' and you'd be able to have a chat?

Joel Werner: That's very cool. What were you saying?

Joel Werner: But what does that mean in English, in our language?

Finn: It says, 'I am from space.'

Joel Werner: Where did the aliens live?

Joel Werner: And do they have names?

Joel Werner: And how many of them are there?

Joel Werner: Just three aliens? Okay.

Finn: Yeah, and there's a Marni and Alex and Sebastian.

Finn: Yeah, and I'm the only one who has three eyes.

Joel Werner: Where's your third eye? Or shouldn't I ask?

Finn: I take off my shoes and just be an alien.

Joel Werner: Okay. Do they just wear socks?

Alison Gopnik: One of the reasons why we think that children's brains are working differently from adult brains is there are studies that show that the actual what are called neurotransmitters, the chemicals in your brain that make it work, are different in young creatures and in older creatures. So, for instance, there's something called cholinergic transmitters which are actually the things that are in nicotine that make your brain very plastic. And caffeine seems to be something that kind of puts your brain back in a state that's more like the young brain. And of course being someplace new or having a new experience like falling in love is something that puts your brain back in that childlike state. I think that what it's like to be a baby is it's like being in love in Paris for the first time after you've had four double espressos, which is a very nice way to feel in some ways but it does mean that you tend to wake up at 3 o'clock in the morning crying.

Lynne Malcolm: That's right! So lastly, where is your future research focus in this area of child development?

Alison Gopnik: The thing that I'm most interested in is this idea of children actually doing better than grown-ups. So we have a bunch of different examples where children are…things that look like bugs of childhood, like the fact that they are impulsive and risk-taking and noisy and variable and unpredictable might turn out to be features from this explore perspective. And what we've done is we've done some experiments where we show that even though grown-ups are usually better than children, when it comes to this kind of finding out something new and unexpected, that some the things that the children do, their kind of impulsive getting into everything, actually give them an advantage, they are actually better at learning than adults. And I think trying to figure out exactly how that works, what is it about children that can make them better and more exploratory, that's the focus of what we are working on now.

Lynne Malcolm: Professor Alison Gopnik from the University of California, Berkeley.

And thanks to Finn and his dad, ABC Science journalist Joel Werner, for taking us into that delightful world of exploratory thinking. Production today by Diane Dean and sound engineer Simon Branthwaite.

I'm Lynne Malcolm. And from next week until the middle of the year, I'll be taking a break. Your host on All in the Mind until then will be Sana Qadar. I know you'll find the programs she's got lined up for you fascinating, so join her next week. Bye from me until later this year.

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