The Philosophical Baby: One of the Most Thought-Provoking Books I’ve Ever Read

“More than any other creature, human beings are able to change. We change the world around us, other people, and ourselves. Children, and childhood, help explain how we change.”

This quote sums up The Philosophical Baby for me. When I read it, I realized that my ability to change the world, and to change myself, are the two things I cherish most about myself. They also embody my deepest desires for my children.

In the book, Author Alison Gopnik helped me connect those abilities I first experienced as a child with who I am today. Thus, I have invaluable insight into the value of what was going on in my mind back then. I see my children now with an empathy and appreciation I never had before. More than that, I feel a deep connection with them as they are today, not as I wish them to be decades from now as adults.
Gopnik eloquently illustrates how children’s minds aren’t just snapping off a bunch of immature synapses as we adults usually think. They’re venerable trial-and-error factories, testing dozens of hypotheses per hour about how the physical world works, and even more importantly, how other human beings think and react.

Fundamentally, young children’s minds change rapidly and often – they’re extremely “plastic,” to use a trendy term from neuroscience. They’re continually forming and reforming mental maps of how the world works. On occasion, they’ll make fundamental new insights that constitute a wholesale paradigm shift, resulting in a cascade of causal map changes throughout their brains.

For instance, think about what must happen inside a one-year-old girl’s brain when she first realizes that she can walk on her own and get what she wants for herself, rather than waiting for an adult to guess what she wants and bring it over. Or, think about when a five-year-old boy starts reading words for the first time, so that the whole world of words starts to have meaning to him.

Throughout childhood, countless fundamental realizations like these cause children’s brains to almost totally reorganize. As they get older, these cataclysmic events happen more rarely, although some neuroscientists claim that adults whose brains are most “plastic” are the most creative.

This propensity for young children’s brains to frequently reorganize is why their long term memories seem to us to be so weak. Gopnik convincingly shows that young children’s memories do store a great deal of information, but since their brains are constantly reorganizing, retrieval from their memories is problematic. Why build a long-term retrieval system when the brain reorganizes every few months? Thus, young children do not have a coherent sense of themselves through the history of their lives that we adults take for granted.

Thus, paradoxically, the development of a coherent sense of identity, which all we adults value highly, coincides with the diminishment of the conditions in our brain that make us most creative. Becoming an adult is not an inexorable journey of positive progress. As we become adults, we lose our childlike creativity.

This is a very deep and fascinating issue that deserves a lot more discussion than I can give it here. Suffice it to say that Gopnik showed me how my recollections of my life form my identity, and how, therefore, children don’t have the same sense of identity that I do.

What does all this have to do with neighborhood play? Well, Gopnik argues that children experiment the most, and are are their most creative, when they are playing freely. Thus, free play is where children create new knowledge that enables them to change the world.

I have so much more I could say about this absolutely fascinating book, but Gopnik does a far better job of explaining her ideas than I do. You should buy the book and read it. It has the potential to fundamentally change how you see yourself and how you see your children.

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