Ezra Klein interviews psychologist Alison Gopnik, Why Adults Lose the ‘Beginner’s Mind’, NYTimes, April 16, 2021.
Children as explorers:
Klein: You write that children aren’t just defective adults, primitive grown-ups, who are gradually attaining our perfection and complexity. Instead, children and adults are different forms of Homo sapiens. How so?
Gopnik: Well, from an evolutionary biology point of view, one of the things that’s really striking is this relationship between what biologists call life history, how our developmental sequence unfolds, and things like how intelligent we are. And there’s a very, very general relationship between how long a period of childhood an organism has and roughly how smart they are, how big their brains are, how flexible they are. And an idea that I think a lot of us have now is that part of that is because you’ve really got these two different creatures. So you’ve got one creature that’s really designed to explore, to learn, to change. That’s the child form. And then you’ve got this other creature that’s really designed to exploit, as computer scientists say, to go out, find resources, make plans, make things happen, including finding resources for that wild, crazy explorer that you have in your nursery. And the idea is that those two different developmental and evolutionary agendas come with really different kinds of cognition, really different kinds of computation, really different kinds of brains, and I think with very different kinds of experiences of the world. So, the very way that you experience the world, your consciousness, is really different if your agenda is going to be, get the next thing done, figure out how to do it, figure out what the next thing to do after that is, versus extract as much information as I possibly can from the world. And I think adults have the capacity to some extent to go back and forth between those two states. But I think that babies and young children are in that explore state all the time. That’s really what they’re designed to do. They’re like a different kind of creature than the adult. You sort of might think about, well, are there other ways that evolution could have solved this explore, exploit trade-off, this problem about how do you get a creature that can do things, but can also learn things really widely? And Peter Godfrey-Smith’s wonderful book — I’ve just been reading “Metazoa” — talks about the octopus. And the octopus is very puzzling because the octos don’t have a long childhood. And yet, they seem to be really smart, and they have these big brains with lots of neurons. But it also turns out that octos actually have divided brains. So they have one brain in the center in their head, and then they have another brain or maybe eight brains in each one of the tentacles. And if you actually watch what the octos do, the tentacles are out there doing the explorer thing.
States of consciousness:
Klein: And is that the dynamic that leads to this spotlight consciousness, lantern consciousness distinction? And can you talk about that? Because I know I think about it all the time.
Gopnik: So those are two really, really different kinds of consciousness. One kind of consciousness — this is an old metaphor — is to think about attention as being like a spotlight. It comes in. It illuminates the thing that you want to find out about. And you don’t see the things that are on the other side. And I think that in other states of consciousness, especially the state of consciousness you’re in when you’re a child — but I think there are things that adults do that put them in that state as well — you have something that’s much more like a lantern. So you’re actually taking in information from everything that’s going on around you. And the most important thing is, is this going to teach me something? Is this new? Is this interesting? Is this curious, rather than focusing your attention and consciousness on just one thing at a time. [...] think about when you’re completely absorbed in a really interesting movie. You’re kind of gone. Your self is gone. You’re not deciding what to pay attention to in the movie. The movie is just completely captivating. In the state of that focused, goal-directed consciousness, those frontal areas are very involved and very engaged. And there seem to actually be two pathways. One of them is the one that’s sort of here’s the goal-directed pathway, what they sometimes call the task dependent activity. And then the other one is what’s sometimes called the default mode. And that’s the sort of ruminating or thinking about the other things that you have to do, being in your head, as we say, as the other mode. When you look at someone who’s in the scanner, who’s really absorbed in a great movie, neither of those parts are really active. And instead, other parts of the brain are more active. And that brain, the brain of the person who’s absorbed in the movie, looks more like the child’s brain.
Klein: Do you think for kids that play or imaginative play should be understood as a form of consciousness, a state?
Gopnik: Yeah, that’s a really good question. So there’s really a kind of coherent whole about what childhood is all about. So if you think from this broad evolutionary perspective about these creatures that are designed to explore, I think there’s a whole lot of other things that go with that. So one thing that goes with that is this broad-based consciousness. But another thing that goes with it is the activity of play. And if you think about play, the definition of play is that it’s the thing that you do when you’re not working. Now it’s not a form of experience and consciousness so much, but it’s a form of activity. It’s a form of actually doing things that, nevertheless, have this characteristic of not being immediately directed to a goal. If you look across animals, for example, very characteristically, it’s the young animals that are playing across an incredibly wide range of different kinds of animals. Sometimes if they’re mice, they’re play fighting. And if they’re crows, they’re playing with twigs and figuring out how they can use the twigs. So, what goes on in play is different. But it’s really fascinating that it’s the young animals who are playing. And all of the theories that we have about play are play’s another form of this kind of exploration. So it’s another way of having this explore state of being in the world. [...]
...children are the R&D wing of our species...
Klein: I was thinking about how a moment ago, you said, play is what you do when you’re not working. And I was thinking, it’s absolutely not what I do when I’m not working. I’m constantly like you, sitting here, being like, don’t work. And that’s not playing. And in fact, I think I’ve lost a lot of my capacity for play. I’ve trained myself to be productive so often that it’s sometimes hard to put it down. And it takes actual, dedicated effort to not do things that feel like work to me. What’s lost in that? Because I think there’s cultural pressure to not play, but I think that your research and some of the others suggest maybe we’ve made a terrible mistake on that by not honoring play more.
Gopnik: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of evidence for that. And it’s interesting that, as I say, the hard-headed engineers, who are trying to do things like design robots, are increasingly realizing that play is something that’s going to actually be able to get you systems that do better in going through the world. Part of the problem — and this is a general explore or exploit problem. Part of the problem with play is if you think about it in terms of what its long-term benefits are going to be, then it isn’t play anymore. And if you sort of set up any particular goal, if you say, oh, well, if you play more, you’ll be more robust or more resilient. And you say, OK, so now I want to design you to do this particular thing well. Then you’re always going to do better by just optimizing for that particular thing than by playing. So what play is really about is about this ability to change, to be resilient in the face of lots of different environments, in the face of lots of different possibilities. It’s about dealing with something new or unexpected. [...]
Klein: Do you play?
Gopnik: Well, I was going to say, when you were saying that you don’t play, you read science fiction, right? And you watch the Marvel Comics universe movies.
Klein: I do, do that.
Gopnik: And I think for grown-ups, that’s really the equivalent of the kind of — especially the kind of pretend play and imaginative play that you see in children. And those two things are very parallel. There’s even a nice study by Marjorie Taylor who studied a lot of this imaginative play that when you talk to people who are adult writers, for example, they tell you that they remember their imaginary friends from when they were kids. Everybody has imaginary friends. But it’s sort of like they keep them in their Rolodex. They keep in touch with their imaginary friends. And I think for adults, a lot of the function, which has always been kind of mysterious — like, why would reading about something that hasn’t happened help you to understand things that have happened, or why would it be good in general — I think for adults a lot of that kind of activity is the equivalent of play. [...]
Klein: One of the arguments you make throughout the book is that children play a population level role, right? We’re talking here about the way a child becomes an adult, how do they learn, how do they play in a way that keeps them from going to jail later. But you sort of say that children are the R&D wing of our species and that as generations turn over, we change in ways and adapt to things in ways that the normal genetic pathway of evolution wouldn’t necessarily predict . And we do it partially through children. Could you talk a bit about that, what this sort of period of plasticity is doing at scale?
Gopnik: Yeah, so I think that’s a good question. And we don’t really completely know what the answer is. But, again, the sort of baseline is that humans have this really, really long period of immaturity. So we have more different people who are involved and engaged in taking care of children. And all that looks as if it’s very evolutionarily costly. So there’s a question about why would it be. Now, of course, it could just be an epiphenomenon. But it seems to be a really general pattern across so many different species at so many different times. So what kind of function could that serve? Well, if you think about human beings, we’re being faced with unexpected environments all the time. One way you could think about it is, our ecological niche is the unknown unknowns. That’s really what we’re adapted to, are the unknown unknowns. That’s what we’re all about. And of course, once we develop a culture, that just gets to be more true because each generation is going to change its environment in various ways that affect its culture. And that means that now, the next generation is going to have yet another new thing to try to deal with and to understand. So I think more and more, especially in the cultural context, that having a new generation that can look around at everything around it and say, let me try to make sense out of this, or let me understand this and let me think of all the new things that I could do, given this new environment, which is the thing that children, and I think not just infants and babies, but up through adolescence, that children are doing, that could be a real advantage. And then once you’ve done that kind of exploration of the space of possibilities, then as an adult now in that environment, you can decide which of those things you want to have happen.
[Skipping over a lot of stuff.]
Klein: I always wonder if the A.I., two-year-old, three-year-old comparisons are just a category error there, in the sense that you might say a small bat can do something that no children can do, which is it can fly. GPT 3, the open A.I. program, can do something that no two-year- old can do effortlessly, which is mimic the text of a certain kind of author. Is it just going to be the case that there are certain collaborations of our physical forms and molecular structures and so on that give our intelligence different categories? I always wonder if there’s almost a kind of comfort being taken at how hard it is to do two-year-old style things. And meanwhile, I don’t want to put too much weight on it’s beating everybody at Go, but that what it does seem plausible it could do in 10 years will be quite remarkable. Now, again, that’s different than the conscious agent, right, that has to make its way through the world on its own. I’m curious how much weight you put on the idea that that might just be the wrong comparison.
Gopnik: This is the old point about asking whether an A.I. can think is like asking whether a submarine can swim, right? It feels like it’s just a category. It’s just a category error. And of course, as I say, we have two-year-olds around a lot, so we don’t really need any more two-year- olds. We should be designing these systems so they’re complementary to our intelligence, rather than somehow being a reproduction of our intelligence. But on the other hand, there are very — I mean, again, just take something really simple. Like, it would be really good to have robots that could pick things up and put them in boxes, right? That doesn’t seem like such a highfalutin skill to be able to have. And that could pick things up and put them in boxes and now when you gave it a screw that looked a little different from the previous screw and a box that looked a little different from the previous box, that they could figure out, oh, yeah, no, that one’s a screw, and it goes in the screw box, not the other box. And it turns out that even to do just these really, really simple things that we would really like to have artificial systems do, it’s really hard. And those are things that two-year-olds do really well. And we can think about what is it. On the other hand, the two-year-olds don’t get bored knowing how to put things in boxes. So what is it that they’ve got, what mechanisms do they have that could help us with some of these kinds of problems?
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