Learning how They Learn:
A Conversation with Alison Gopnik
From the BrainConnection.com, Understanding what is normal is key
to solving what isn't.
Most parents have, at one time or another, gazed lovingly at their
newborn child and wondered whether someday their offspring would grow
up to be the next Einstein or Newton. If Alison Gopnik was watching,
she might suggest that the newborn in the bassinet doesn't need to
grow up. Perhaps they already think like a great scientist, even before
they can reach a chalkboard or leave their diapers. Dr. Gopnik, a
developmental psychologist working at the University of California,
Berkeley, has spent years observing children as they learn.
In her recently published book The Scientist in the Crib, Dr. Gopnik,
along with her colleagues Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl at the
University of Washington, suggest that newborns and infants use strategies
for learning that are not so different from those used by empirical
science. Learning for scientists and children is a process of taking
in information about the world and seeing how well it fits with our
internal theories and assumptions. Like scientists, children are constantly
changing and adapting their assumptions about the world to be in accordance
with the information they receive from the outside world.
For example, one might assume that your garden-variety scientist
is reclusive and introverted, and so focused on their own area of
study that they are uninterested in topics outside their field. Upon
meeting Alison Gopnik you would have to rethink all these prejudices.
She is warm, charming, personable, and conversant on a wide range
of topics including, but not limited to, how children learn. My recent
conversation with her left me enthused about both science and development.
We continue to learn new things throughout life, and as we do, we
employ skills characteristic of both scientist and child.
Where were you born, raised, and how did you end up at UC Berkeley?
Dr. Gopnik: I was actually born in Philadelphia. My parents were
graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania, but I was raised
in Montreal, Canada. I'm actually one of those secret Canadians among
They are everywhere, especially in Neuroscience.
Dr. Gopnik: They are, actually. McGill, which is where I did my undergraduate
work, was a great, classic place to do Neuroscience. Although I did
not in fact do neuroscience -- my undergraduate degree was in philosophy.
So I started out as a philosopher and still in fact think of myself
as being a philosopher.
McGill was a wonderful place to be because in 1970, when I started
my undergraduate degree, they didn't actually have an official word
for cognitive science yet, but that was what they were teaching at
I got a wonderful education there. I was going to become a philosopher,
but I had this feeling that the philosophical questions I was interested
in were ones that you could answer empirically. Which of course is
sort of heresy in philosophy.
I applied to places for graduate school where I could do both philosophy
and psychology and I ended up going to Oxford. The way I always tell
the story is that for the first year I was there I was spending half
my time down in "Logic Lane", which is where the philosophers
are, down close to the river in the old part of Oxford. I was spending
the other half of my time up in Summertown, which is where they park
all the babies and wives far away from the University.
I discovered I was spending my time with these two communities of
people, one of which was a group of completely determined, disinterested,
seekers of truth who spent all their waking hours trying to figure
out deep important problems about the world, and the others were these
egocentric narcissistic characters who constantly demanded attention
And, of course, the first group are the babies and the second group
are the philosophers. So I decided if I was going to spend the rest
of my life with a group of people, I would rather spend it with the
babies than with the philosophers.
It is literally true that what I wanted to do didn't change at all
from the time I was an undergraduate and doing philosophy through
the rest of my career. It just seemed that instead of asking questions,
you might want to answer them. Studying development was a good way
to answer them.
What was your thesis on?
Dr. Gopnik: My thesis is actually on early language. At Oxford I
spent two years doing longitudinal studies of children who were just
beginning to talk. I spent a year going to see these nine beautiful
18-month-old English kids. I visited them once a week for a year and
a half and recorded everything they said. I can't quite believe I
did this. I wrote down all the words they used that were not names.
Everyone always pays attention to early names, no one pays attention
to these other words. So my thesis work was doing this very detailed
analysis of what kind of language children were using when they were
beginning to speak.
In some ways the fact that I spent all that time just sitting and
watching the kids completely changed my philosophical views. When
I started out at Oxford I was an absolute rabid Chomskian of the most
I was pretty much convinced that everything was the result of some
kind of innate structure or other, on philosophical grounds. By the
time I'd spent two years sitting and watching the babies week by week,
watching them change in front of my eyes, I didn't think that was
going to be a good explanation of what was going on anymore.
Now what is your philosophy?
Dr. Gopnik: The position I ended up in was really a kind of combination
of the philosophical work I had done and my psychological work. The
Chomsky tradition is one tradition but there is another position in
philosophy, particularly in the philosophy of science, which emphasizes
that you can have revision and change of theories and knowledge, even
if you don't start out with this blank slate. The tradition that comes
from Carnap and Quine and other people says that the way science works
is that we never start from scratch, we always have some sort of theory
about what the world is like.
But we also have enormous degrees of freedom in terms of how we can
modify and revise and change our theories in the light of new evidence.
When I looked at kids, that's much more what babies look like. The
idea is that the kids are not born as blank states -- they are born
with innate theories about how the world works. But unlike the Chomskian
picture, they can and do revise pretty much anything in those theories
in fundamental ways as they interact with the world and get more information
T he neurological evidence supports this view that early on you have
massive flexibility. There is this enormous number of different things
that could all happen and the connections and pruning of the nervous
system are happening at a great pitch. What you have at the end, as
an adult, is this lean mean machine. This machine that's really good
at doing things very quickly, and not having to sit and explode before
deciding what to do. So I think the trade off is we lose flexibility
and learning capacity as adults, but we gain in terms of automaticity
and efficiency of implementing the things we've already learned.
For scientists, it is important we don't completely lose our flexibility
because what we do is get ourselves back into that baby mode of simply
exploring things for the sake of exploring them.
Do you think your work with children has kept you more childlike?
Dr. Gopnik: That's an interesting question. I think... I think it
has. Here's a little background. Obviously I'm a scientist and I'm
deeply committed to a kind of scientific, rationalist, naturalist
approach to the world, but I also agree with the classic romantic
poets, people like Wordsworth and Blake, that there really is this
kind of intense, extremely valuable perception in very young children.
I think that's actually right, and more, I think that's actually
what you find empirically when you do the science -- children really
are learning more about the world and taking in more information than
we are. I do think that hanging out with children and watching them
and observing them on a regular basis is like reading poetry.
It's a way of kind of cleansing the doors of perception. It's a way
of getting yourself, at least temporarily, back into that state where
everything's up for grabs, and everything's new, and nothing is taken
One of the things I say in the book, The Scientist in the Crib, is
that going to the 7-11 with a two-year-old is like going to get a
quart of milk with William Blake. It takes you four times as long,
but you suddenly realize that this incredibly boring couple of blocks
is actually full of riches and excitement, novelty, and things to
look at and find out about. I think that's an extremely satisfying
part of this kind of work.
When did your children come along?
Dr. Gopnik: It's interesting. I'm the oldest of six children, so
I had little kids around pretty much all of my life. I had my first
two children when I was in graduate school, in Oxford. My first son
was born when I was 23, and my second was born four days after I did
my oral exam for my Ph.D. Which in Oxford is called the Viva, and
is this terrible ordeal, a nightmare that goes on for four hours where
they interrogate and drill you. This is after you've done your thesis,
and literally after you've spent five years doing your thesis either
you pass your Viva or you don't, and if you don't then that's it.
You don't get your Ph.D. So it's a totally terrifying ordeal. I came
in with my enormous belly, much to the shock of the people who were
examining me, and they asked when is it that you're due to have this
And I said any day now, could be anytime, which was true, and I had
a 20 minute long Viva. They were obviously convinced I was going to
go into labor right there. My second baby was born four days afterwards.
When I had my third child, eight years after, I was doing my job
interview at Berkeley. I gave my job talk at Berkeley seven months
pregnant, and I recommend this to all my students as a way of dealing
with stressful situations. It gives you that "who cares?"
feeling. Getting the job or not seems completely trivial compared
to having a baby.
What books are you reading right now?
Dr. Gopnik: I read a lot outside my field, but I have just in fact
finished writing a review of two wonderful books in my field, one
of which is a book about imaginary companions by Margorie Taylor,
called Imaginary Companions and The Children Who Create Them. The
other is a book by Owen Flanagan called Dreaming Souls, which is about
dreams and neuroscience. Those are both really terrific cognitive
science books that were fun to read.
But I read a lot just for my own enjoyment. I just finished a biography
of Benjamin Franklin, who is one of my heroes, and I've started on
Philip Lopate's Art Of the Personal Essay.
What are you working on in the lab right now? What is your newest
Dr. Gopnik: Actually it's the most exciting thing that has ever happened
in my career. Its funny because it has come just by coincidence, at
the same time as doing this very different thing, writing the book
Scientist in the Crib and trying to get things across to the popular
I'm doing some work right now about children's causal inference.
It's about very young children and how they work out the causal structure
of the world. What we are doing is a collaboration with a computer
scientist at Carnegie Mellon.
There are some very powerful recent computational advances in causal
inference and how you can get computational systems to do causal inference.
Interestingly, they are even proposing -- if they ever try to send
anything to Mars again -- they are proposing they might have some
robots that have this sort of computational structure in them. The
idea is that these are systems that look at patterns and correlations
in data and try and work out what the underlying causal structure
So we've been looking at kids. If we are right, then what children
are doing is like what scientist are doing. Making up theories. Looking
for causal structure is a really important part of what theorists
What theorists do is make claims about what causes what, even when
it's not apparent or obvious. What we are trying to do is figure out
when and how children actually figure out the underlying structure
of what causes what, even when it isn't obvious to them. We have actually
invented this little machine, the Blicket Detector, which is a little
machine you put things on and it lights up and plays music. We can
use it to give the kids all kinds of information about what the causal
nature of this machine is, and it looks as if they are using some
of these very abstract powerful inductive procedures that you would
have thought only statisticians and computer jocks would use to solve
these problems. So that's really cool.