On Being with Krista Tippett

Alison Gopnik

The Evolutionary Power of Children and Teenagers

Last Updated

January 23, 2020

Alison Gopnik understands babies and children as the R&D division of humanity. From her cognitive science lab at the University of California, Berkeley, she investigates the “evolutionary paradox” of the long human childhood. When she first trained in philosophy and developmental psychology, the minds of children were treated as blank slates. But her research is helping us to see what even the most mundane facts of a toddler or a teenager — from fantasy play to rebelliousness — might teach us about what it means to be human.

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Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at U.C. Berkeley, where she also heads the Cognitive Development and Learning Lab. She’s written more than 100 journal articles and several books, including The Scientist in the Crib, The Philosophical Baby, and, most recently, The Gardener and the Carpenter.


Krista Tippett, host: Alison Gopnik understands babies and children as the R&D division of humanity. From her cognitive science lab at Berkeley, she investigates the “evolutionary paradox” of the long human childhood. When she first trained in philosophy and developmental psychology, the minds of children were treated as blank slates. But she’s led on the frontier helping us see how even the most mundane facts of a 3-year-old or a 9-year-old or a teenager — from extravagant pretend play to risky rebelliousness — tell us what it means to be human. The creativity of the young human brain, she says, literally helps us all stay creative — and growing — as a species.

I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]

Ms. Tippett: I have a question I generally ask everyone I interview, whoever they are, just wondering about the spiritual or religious background of their childhood, however they understand that now. But it occurs to me, a word that — you are trained as a philosopher; that was your first love, and I wondered — I would add to that, how would you think about the spiritual, religious, or philosophical background of your childhood?

Alison Gopnik: So we were brought up as absolutely militant atheists — militant, serious atheists. That was very much the creed in our household. And I retain that creed to this day. But on the other hand, what I like to think of as sort of the numinous, rather than the spiritual, the sense of awe and relation to a world that’s much bigger than you are, a set of emotions about the significance and meaning of what’s going on around you — that whole set of emotions and feelings and beliefs — that was something that was very much a part of my childhood.

Essentially — I’ve written about thisour creed was Modernist literature and art. So we got taken to see the Seagram’s building the way that other kids would’ve been taken to see a cathedral. And we went to see Beckett and Brecht — in fact, we acted in Beckett and Brecht — the way that other kids might go to church. So we had some very intense aesthetic and literary values, and I do think those intense aesthetic and literary values are very closely connected to what’s often called spiritual values.

Ms. Tippett: And you were the oldest of six children who were born in 11 years? Is that right?

Ms. Gopnik: That’s right.

Ms. Tippett: And I’ve heard you say that you love — that you loved children, that you were fascinated with babies and children. And you had that early, very personal experience of that.

Ms. Gopnik: Yeah. I think — as often with oldest sisters, particularly — older siblings and older sisters become surrogate parent. And actually, part of the work that I’ve done scientifically, I think it’s a really important point is that, for most of human history, babies and children were being taken care of as much, if not more, by older siblings, by other people in the community, as they were by their biological mums. So when you had six children in 11 years, the way my mum did, a lot of the focus is on this new baby who really takes a lot of caring; and that means that, as the older sibling, I was spending a lot of time taking care of the younger siblings.

Ms. Tippett: So you did study philosophy. Talk a little bit about that, that move for you, from that as your focal point to babies as your focal point.

Ms. Gopnik: From the time — my little philosophical formation story/myth is that, oh, when I was about ten, I read Socrates for the first time. I read Plato. And, in particular, I read the Apology and the Phaedo. And the Phaedo is a wonderful dialogue, where Socrates is trying to deal with the question about where it is that we come from. So how is it that we seem to have this soul, and yet the soul seems to come out of nothing? And there’s a long discussion about where the soul could come from. And I do vividly remember thinking, as I was reading that, “Well, it comes through having children. You have children, and then you pass on a soul to those children.” And it was remarkable that in that discussion, there was not even a mention of children. Children just didn’t appear. And, in fact, if you read most of western philosophy, children didn’t even appear. Children didn’t appear as part of moral argumentation; they didn’t appear as part of ideas about where the mind came from or where knowledge came from. And it seemed to me, very, very quickly, that there was a really great project that you could do, trying to take all of this information about children that we were just beginning to accumulate, and thinking about children in a deep, philosophical way.

And that was particularly true because the philosophical question that I was most interested in, captivated by, is what I sometimes call the problem of knowledge, which is, how is it that we ever know anything about the world around us? All that reaches us from the world are these tiny little disturbances of air at our ears and photons on our retinas, and yet, we all know about a world, and in the end, we know about a world full of quarks and quasars. How is that possible? How could that possibly ever happen? Again, this is big, deep, philosophical question. And it seemed obvious to me that if you wanted to really answer that question, the place to look was at the babies and children who were the ones who were actually doing that learning. 

But when I started out in philosophy in the 1970s, people looked at me as if I was kind of crazy [laughs] to think that those two things —

Ms. Tippett: Wanting to talk about that. And so you moved to experimental psychology. Is that right?

Ms. Gopnik: That’s right. So I did my first degree, my BA, mostly in philosophy, with a bunch of psychology courses. And then I went to Oxford for my DPhil. And after a while, I realized I could spend the rest of my life with either a community of completely disinterested seekers after truth who wanted to find out about the world more than anything else, or a community of spoiled, narcissistic creatures who demanded that women take care of them all the time, and since the first group was the babies, and the second group was the Oxford philosophers, I would rather spend my time with the babies. [laughs]

Ms. Tippett: With the babies asking the deep questions. [laughs]

Ms. Gopnik: That’s a little unfair [laughs], but it’s not completely inaccurate.

Ms. Tippett: Are you familiar with — there’s a proverb — it’s in Judaism, but also, there’s a version of it in Islam, that before a child is born, the angel Gabriel tells him everything, all the secrets of the universe, then kisses him on the forehead, and he begins gradually to forget it all. And I remember, when my children were born, you do have this feeling that they know everything. And you’ve been studying this scientifically. There are uncanny ways that they feel knowledgeable and wise, and intelligent. I just feel like maybe that proverb is pointing at that. But, as you say, science wasn’t looking at it. And philosophy wasn’t really looking at it.

Ms. Gopnik: It’s interesting, because if you look at the spiritual traditions — and I’ve done a bit of this — there’s lots of moments when people recognize or say something about the fact that babies and children have a kind of wisdom, a kind of exploration, a kind of way of seeing the world that’s really different from the adult version and that we lose as we get older.

And one of the things that we’ve been doing scientifically in the lab — the thing that I’m actually most excited about at the moment and my new book will be about if I ever finish writing it — is that we can actually show, scientifically, the differences between the ways that children’s minds and brains work and the ways that adult minds and brains work that capture, I think, the thing that those spiritual leaders and poets and generations of mothers and caregivers were seeing in the young children. And one way to think about this is a contrast that actually comes from computer science, between exploring the world and exploiting the world. So most of the time, as adults, we’re in this state of …

Ms. Tippett: “How do we make use of this?”

Ms. Gopnik: Exactly. We’re in the state that the Buddhists talk about as being Maya, or Wordsworth very vividly describes as “getting and spending, we lay waste our days.” But we need to get and spend to be able to function in the world, including to be able to take care of our children. So most of the time, as adults, we’re in this narrow, goal-directed, focused state — which is great; we would never get anything …

Ms. Tippett: Civilization needs that, too.

Ms. Gopnik: Sorry?

Ms. Tippett: Civilization needs that, too.

Ms. Gopnik: Absolutely. That’s right. But I think that the other kind of state that we’re in is the state in which we are released from the demands of exploitation. We’re released from having to think about “What do I need to do next?” And we are able to explore the range of possibilities — the range of possibilities in the world, the range of possibilities of thoughts, the range of hypothetical ways the world could be that are different from the way the world actually is. We’re able to be open to information that’s coming from lots of different sources, information that’s coming from the world all around us. And that state is the state that I think young children are in pretty much all the time. And part of what happens as we get older is that we transfer, we move, from being in that kind of state of wild exploration, and then we narrow down into this exploit phase as adults.

Ms. Tippett: That’s the prefrontal cortex clicking in, helping us…

Ms. Gopnik: Exactly. And even if you just look biologically, what happens is, you get this early brain in which many, many new connections are being formed, and then you get this tipping point — about age five, actually — where the connections that are formed get stronger and are more efficient. But then the connections that aren’t formed are pruned, disappear, and you get much more of this prefrontal control. So you get the executive office of the brain controlling much more of the rest of the brain. And I think it’s interesting that if you look at certain kinds of adult experience, like mystical experience; like some of the work that I’ve been thinking about at Berkeley, if you look at the effects of certain kinds of psychedelic substances, which seem to have effects that are very much like the effects of various kinds of mystical experiences, experiences in meditation, those are all adult experiences, numinous experiences, that seem to replicate in some ways that return to exploration, that return to not being in control, that return to a sense of openness to the world at large.

[music: “Kid A” by Radiohead]

Ms. Tippett:  I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with cognitive scientist and child psychology professor Alison Gopnik.

Ms. Tippett: I’m very interested, also, in how you think about, then, the shift to adolescence. And I feel like there’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy in this culture. We gear up for our teenagers to be problems. And you’ve said, adolescence is not a problem to be solved. One of the interesting points that you make is that on the one hand, yes, there’s this rebelliousness that also — this is this acute moment of rebelliousness in our species, and clearly, there are lots of developmental things going on, but that also, pro-sociality, altruism, are linked — are another side — of that rebelliousness. It’s so interesting. How does that work?

Ms. Gopnik: Well, we’ve done — when I was saying before about the children switching from exploration to exploitation, we’ve actually done a bunch of studies that show that, in fact, children are more creative, can consider more possibilities early on than they can later on or they can as adults. But then we had a version of that where the problem was a social problem. It was about explaining why people did what they did, rather than explaining, say, why a machine lit up. And what we discovered there, somewhat to our surprise, was the preschoolers, the 4-year-olds, were very creative; the adults were not creative — that was consistent with other people’s findings; there was a decline at school age, which is what we’d found otherwise; but there was actually a burst in creativity in the social world in adolescence. So, the adolescents were actually the ones who were the most flexible when it came to thinking about a solution to a problem like, “Why did that person do what they did?” And I think there’s a lot of reason to believe that adolescents are often at the cutting edge of social change. And part of that is this capacity to think about all the different possibilities about the way the world could be.

Ms. Tippett: And I feel like we’re in an historical moment where that feels like it’s on display; that the great name in our encounter with whatever’s happening with the natural world is Greta — is a teenager. It’s not a new idea that substantial cultural shift happens in generational time, as opposed to election cycle time, although we’re all acting like that’s not true right now. But you are making a different point. You’re saying that minds — the mind of our species changes through generational change more than individual change; that generations — I want you to put it in your own words, but this how I can understand it — that they’re continually kicking us out of whatever rut we’re in, whatever stasis is there.

Ms. Gopnik: Exactly. That’s right.

Ms. Tippett: And if you think about Greta Thunberg — but it’s not just her. She’s become this face of something, but it’s — teenagers in general are very interesting. I think, also, of the imprint the Parkland kids made as they raised their voices, as they modeled a different kind of reaction. And also in the sense of calling out a nonsensical status quo, and pro-sociality, because what they’re speaking and acting on behalf of is the greater social good in the most expansive sense.

Ms. Gopnik: Well, I think one piece about that is the way that we care about each other. So in the western philosophical tradition, the way of trying to articulate our ethical obligations or the ways that we take care of each other tend to be these very contractual kinds of pictures. So “I’ll do this for you, because you’ll do that for me.” Even the Golden Rule is like that: I’m going to coordinate what I do, treat other people the way I want them to treat me —

Ms. Tippett: Rational and transactional.

Ms. Gopnik: That’s right. And you shouldn’t diss that; that’s the basic brilliant insight of the Enlightenment. It’s led to things like being able to use markets and being able to have democracy; taking that individual relationship of “here’s a contract” and putting it up on a national scale. But there’s another tradition that goes back — it’s interesting, people like Mengzi in the Chinese tradition argued for this — that says: That’s one way that we deal with each other ethically. But there’s a much more profound way that we deal with each other ethically, which is the way that mothers and children, for example — the way that when you have a child, for example, that you’re taking care of, it’s not that you have a contract. It’s just that you take on the needs and utilities of that other person; that, literally, if you’re caring for a child, the child’s needs become your needs and often overwhelm your needs — in fact, always, at least in part, overwhelm your needs.

And that’s a really striking moral and ethical relationship. It’s a kind of altruism that is intrinsic. And we have very good evidence now — again, just from the science — that this kind of altruism is there, even in very, very young babies; this ability to take the people who are close to you and just adopt — “This is what their needs are, and I am just automatically out there to help them to fulfill those needs.” We did studies of this, and others have — 18-month-olds are starting to do this. And that’s such a different picture of how ethical relations work. So, for someone like Mengzi and others in the Confucian tradition, the real political problem is, how do you scale up that relationship, those close, intimate relationships, those relationships of attachment, as psychologists say — how do you scale them up to the scale of a community or a nation or a planet? And I think that’s a really interesting, deep challenge. How can you do that in a way that captures autonomy at the same time?

And again, in religious traditions — one of the things I say in one of my books is, if you want to get a little taste of sainthood, taking care of a 3-year-old is a pretty good way to do it. That’s sort of a joke, but not really, in the sense that that sense that you have of your attachment to children, that combination of “this particular being is the most valuable being on the entire planet, and I would do anything for this particular being.”

Ms. Tippett: There’s this selflessness that you did not know you were capable of.

Ms. Gopnik: That’s right. And I think almost anybody who cares for a child, whether as a parent or in another context, recognizes that is part of the relationship. And it’s easy to say, “OK, that’s just an illusion that evolution has placed on us so we continue to have more babies,” but I think it’s the opposite. I think that sense that you have, when you’re caring for a child, that this individual child — just them, just because of who they are — is the most valuable thing in the world — not because they are particularly smart or particularly pretty; it’s just them; they’re incredibly valuable — I think that’s when we’re seeing people clearly. That’s when we’re actually understanding what human values are like.

I have two sisters who also have grandchildren. And we go through this thing where we say, “That grandchild, oh, he’s wonderful and smart and” — a little bit we’re saying, “Yeah, but he’s not like mine.” [laughs] And of course, we think of that as being this funny illusion, funny grandmother illusion about how fantastic your grandchild is. But I think there’s a really serious religious point about the fact that — no, no; that’s not the illusion — that’s the reality. The illusion is when we think that there are billions of people who don’t have that worth, who don’t have that value, who aren’t that deep and important and worthy of love.

Now, it’s pretty hard. That’s the project of the bodhisattvas of the world is — or, perhaps, of the great spiritual leaders — is, could you love every — all those billions of people the same way that you love your grandchild? Well, of course, you couldn’t. But that’s a kind of model, I think, for how relations between people could work, a model for how you could do your ethics and your politics, that’s very different from the standard model, which is a bunch of men making contracts with one another.

[music: “Infinite Corner” by Niklas Aman]

Ms. Tippett: After a short break, more with Alison Gopnik. Listen to this show and everything we do on Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts.

[music: “Infinite Corner” by Niklas Aman]

I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with developmental psychologist and cognitive scientist Alison Gopnik on what babies and children teach us about what it means to be human — and in fact how they change the mind of our species, generation after generation. Her most recent book is The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children.

Ms. Tippett: Something you said in your conversation with Ezra Klein, which I so enjoyed: that one thing you’ve seen is that we’re not just capable of caring for people because we love them — we don’t actually care for our children because we love them, although we might think that — that love is engendered through the act of caring. And it feels to me like that has social relevance, as well as personal relevance — or, it could.

I do want to talk to you about parenting, which is obviously something you’ve written about and is connected to the whole question of babies and children — although, as you point out, interestingly, the verb “parenting” really only became popular in the 1970s, and you’ve called it a bad invention. [laughs] It instrumentalizes the relationship?

The metaphors you use are — two models — would be the carpenter mode of parenting, which is very dedicated to shaping and to bringing about a certain outcome, or the gardening, which would be providing the space in which this human being can flourish.

Ms. Gopnik: I think gardening is a very nice metaphor for — if you’re trying to do this project, which I would like to do, of really taking caring seriously from a scientific perspective and a philosophical perspective, trying to find good ways of talking about it that make it be other than just another kind of work, I think the gardening is a really nice example of that, because part of what happens when you garden is that you provide this space for other creatures — in this case, plants — to grow, to thrive, to succeed. But you don’t know beforehand exactly how that’s gonna take place. And in fact, it’s an empirical fact that the best way to have a garden is to have an ecosystem where unexpected, variable things will happen that you don’t know about and you can’t predict beforehand. And that kind of system is much better — to get back to climate change — is much better to adjusting to change, to variability …

Ms. Tippett: And different environments.

Ms. Gopnik: … than a system of hothouse orchids, where you have to control everything in order to bring about a particular outcome. And I think that kind of picture is much more like what goes on with caregiving for our next generation. And even if you could accomplish this end of shaping a child to come out a particular way, you would have defeated the whole point of childhood by doing that, because the whole point of childhood is to have each generation introduce new variability, new noise and randomness and new possibilities. And you would actually squelch that if you succeeded in shaping the child to come out a particular way.

But again, we don’t have very good scientific or intellectual or philosophical or even religious context to describe that and to talk about it and to make it not be just another kind of work or another kind of “exploit” activity.

Ms. Tippett: And I think you’re pointing at a very interesting aspect of this — that, as you’ve been discussing, what childhood gives our species, in evolutionary terms, is this period of novelty and unpredictability and variability and imagination and creativity and this capacity for change that makes humanity more robust. And we’re coming out — I do feel like this — I don’t know. I don’t know what’s happening with parenting. I feel like, in my life — I was born in 1960. So I feel like I’ve watched — I think, when I was having my children, it was the attachment parenting moment. And now there’s the language of the helicopter, and the new thing is the snowplow, clearing all obstacles from before your children.

And we live in this moment — in fact, children are now being raised and coming into adulthood in this moment where, in fact, all the forms that we came into the century with are not working. This is a moment where we need adaptable humans and socially creative humans. I just wonder if you think about all of this in the context of — if we think that generations change our species and move our species forward, do you worry about how modes of parenting, this new invention, may be imprinting this moment in ways which are difficult?

Ms. Gopnik: I think the good part is that, even when what parents are doing is kind of dumb, children basically ignore it. [laughs] I think we probably get a fair bit of robustness and variability, independently of the strange views that parents have about what it is that they’re doing. But, having said that, I do think there’s an issue about how vulnerable children are. So we know, for instance, that there’s been this big increase in anxiety in children at the same time that, especially for middle-class children, the reality is that there’s many fewer threats than there were in the past.

And it’s this real puzzle about why is there so much fear and anxiety around childhood, when that doesn’t seem to fit at least their immediate experience? Now, in the long run, there are certainly threats to face. The paradox — I think it’s a bit like what happens with allergies, where being protected from threat as a child actually ends up, paradoxically, making you set off the alarms even when there isn’t a threat as an adult.

Ms. Tippett: Makes you more fragile …

Ms. Gopnik: That’s right — makes you less robust at a time when what you really need is robustness.

Now, again, I think the evolutionary program is deeply enough there that this particular phenomenon in this particular generation of middle-class children isn’t going to be fatal —

Ms. Tippett: Four decades of weird parenting can’t ruin us? [laughs]

Ms. Gopnik: I mean, I sometimes say, think about — you think about the Greatest Generation, think about the people who grew up in war-torn Europe; that would seem as if it was going to be a much more damaging outcome, and human beings and children are pretty robust. But it is the problem of our particular time and our particular society and trying to, as a society, to say, “No, what we want our children to do is to be able to take risks, knowing that those risks might actually, really not turn out well.” That’s a very, very, very difficult thing to do, but a very essential thing to do.

Ms. Tippett: You have this statement: “Part of the pathos, but also the moral depth, of being a parent is that a good parent creates an adult who can make his own choices, even disastrous choices.” [laughs]

Ms. Gopnik: There’s a beautiful poem by my friend, Jane Hirshfield, called “Resilience,” [Editor’s note: Ms. Gopnik misstates the title of the poem, “Optimism.”] which I won’t be able to reproduce here. But the idea is that the kind of resilience that you want is not the pillow that comes back to its form every time you lie on it, but the resilience of a tree where the light is blocked from one side, and it finds a way to go to the other side, or the resistance of a plant that finds another path or a river that’s blocked in one way and finds another way to go. And she says in the poem, that resilience is the basis of all of life on earth. And that’s a really different picture of resilience. It’s not that it will all bounce back again to where it was; it’s that the very act of failure or of moving in a different direction is part of what it means to be human. And it isn’t that that is OK because, in the long run, you’re going to succeed, and things are going to get better. It’s OK because that’s what it means to be human, and in particular, that’s what it means to have a child, is to watch and care for and identify with another creature who’s going through that process of challenge and change.

Ms. Tippett: And it’s another expression of that fundamental characteristic of childhood, and childhood for our species, of something happening that you could not possibly have imagined or planned, and yet it turns out to be who you are, or the quality of your life.

There’s a place where you write — maybe in The Philosophical Baby — “The 1-month-old turns into the 2-year-old, and then the 3-year-old, and then the 5-year-old, and eventually, miraculously, into a mother with children of her own. How could all these utterly different creatures be the same person?” And you also write so wonderfully about the metamorphosis that is childhood to adulthood. And then I’m finding — I’m so fascinated right now about — then the metamorphosis that happens again, as you age into — if we’re all gonna live to be 100, let’s call 50 the halfway point. [laughs] But I’m just curious about how this work and thinking you’ve done about childhood, and our species in that sense, inform your experience of the metamorphosis of growing older.

Ms. Gopnik: This is something that I’ve gotten very interested in, I suppose for autobiographical reasons now. But there’s a tendency to think about human development as if there’s this wonderful peak of all of humanity, which is a 35-year-old white guy who’s writing philosophy or psychology. And then everything else is a failure or an attempt to get to that amazing peak — and then falling off from it. And that doesn’t make much sense from an evolutionary perspective. It makes much more sense to think about what evolutionary biologists call “life history.” And the idea of life history is that, across a lifespan, many, many different things happen. And you have different periods with different kinds of functions. So childhood is one of the best examples — that having a long childhood is different — but also, just how long you live; when you stop being fertile; what your relationships are to the next generation. Those are all part of life history in evolutionary biology. And evolutionary biologists think this is absolutely crucial part of evolution, a crucial part of what it means to be an organism.

Now, if that picture is right, then, just as we should think about childhood not as being a defective version of adulthood, but this separate time with its own characteristics, one of the things that’s really distinctive about human beings is that we have this extra 20 years, between 50 and 70, of life that our closest primate relatives don’t have.

There’s even a wonderful, surprising finding, which is, if you look at other species, it’s very rare to have post-menopausal females. But we do know that orcas, killer whales, have post-menopausal females, and it turns out there’s a bunch of beautiful work showing that they also have cultural traditions. So the grandmothers are passing on information about what kind of food there is, where you should go, what the hunting grounds are like, to the children and to the grandchildren. And that’s a really important part of orca survival. If the grandmothers die, then the group doesn’t do nearly as well.

And I think that’s even more true for humans, that the kinds of things that we do as grandparents are so different — and this is one of the experiences — it’s not like an easier form of parenting. It’s a totally different relationship. And I think it’s very interesting to think about what kinds of adaptations we have in older life that aren’t just — I mean, some of it is just that we’re falling apart, but some of it is that there are things that we do that really are designed for that last period.

So for instance, you know that frontal control — that going in and desperately trying to get things done that’s so characteristic of our mid-adult life? We know that that frontal control seems to get loosened as we get older.

Ms. Tippett: And what a relief — what a relief that is.

Ms. Gopnik: Exactly. That’s right. One of the things I say is, I think everything’s great about getting older except the part where you wake up and find you’re in the body of a cockroach. But at the same time everybody’s finding that, somehow, they’ve been transformed into these cockroaches, we’re all a lot happier than we were before.

Ms. Tippett: Right, right — happier as a cockroach.

Ms. Gopnik: Which seems kind of weird. We don’t have the kind of intense erotic feelings that we did when we were young, and yet, the love that we feel for our partners feels deeper and more profound — and just as important, maybe even more important. Our love for our grandchildren is deep and profound as our love for our children.

One other thing I say is, you know, I think you could make an argument that, basically, we’re human up till puberty and after menopause, and then, in between, we’re glorified primates, trying to do all those primate things about mating and dominating and finding our way in the social hierarchy.

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] That is so good. That is such a good image. I love that.

[music: “Reading by a Pool” by Lullatone]

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today: with cognitive scientist and child psychology professor Alison Gopnik.

Ms. Tippett: I want to invoke the philosopher in you. One of the big questions across time of the human condition — certainly of philosophy and theology, but also, I feel, which science is picking up in interesting ways now — is this question of consciousness, what it is. And I’m really curious about how you think about that, after this live you’ve lived — and I do mean the life you’ve lived, so both as a human being and a mother, as well as somebody who studies the evolutionary paradox of childhood in our species.

Ms. Gopnik: I’ve thought a lot and written and even done some studies, trying to answer this question about what’s consciousness like for babies and children, and what can that tell us about consciousness in general? And it’s a big mystery, but my view is that I think it’s very unlikely that what will happen is, we’ll get one single answer to the question of what is consciousness, if it’s gonna turn out to be a particular neural vibration or a particular part of the brain or integrating information or a lot of the things that are on the table. I think what’s going to happen is, we’re going to find lots of different relationships between phenomenology, between conscious experience and different kinds of functions and brain states. And one of the ones that I think is most interesting is this relationship between that very broad, open, kind of mystical experience — that experience when the whole world seems to be full of meaning and significance, and you’re open to everything that’s going on in the world — that experience, I think we have very good reason to believe that that’s a lot like the experience of babies and children. And I think everyone who’s cared for a child has had that experience of looking at those wide eyes and just feeling as if there’s a kind of pure, open awareness that you see in those children that’s very different from the typical awareness that we have as adults.

One of the fascinating, completely unexpected, fascinating things that’s happened recently is, as I mentioned before, this work with psychedelics, where it turns out that when you look at brains under the influence of psychedelic substances, you see a pattern that looks very much like the childhood brain: many, many local connections, much less frontal control, much more plasticity, much more flexibility. And the therapeutic uses of those substances, which seem to be coming out, are connected to this increase in flexibility. And I think that tells us something about the fact that we’re not just making it up, that children have that kind of wide consciousness or that it gives them a way of thinking about the world that is really deep and valuable and connected to these other kinds of states of awe and openness and awareness that have been seen as being the province of religion.

And, of course, the big question for an atheist scientist, the way I am, when you’re considering those things, is always, well, OK, is this just a hallucination, or is this capturing something that’s real? And I think childhood might be quite helpful in suggesting that, no, that state is tracking something that’s important in the world. It is really tracking how full of information, how wide, how awesome the world actually is.

Ms. Tippett: What you hear that is so transformative for people is this sense of the spaciousness of reality, which we don’t always comprehend in our very purpose-driven days, but that spaciousness makes sense, that that’s also the experience of the baby. It is the true experience they’re having. It’s a new world.

Ms. Gopnik: And that’s right: it is true that the world is larger and more fascinating and more full of information, and there’s more to find about it than we ever think about. Scientists have that feeling, because that really is true about what the world is like. And when children have that feeling, they’re tracking something that’s truer about what the world is like than we adults in our “getting and spending, we lay waste our days” primate phase.

Ms. Tippett: But what that also says — an aspect, an implication of that observation about children — is that each and every one of us actually has an experience of that way of being conscious, and somewhere in our bodies, we have that memory. I’m curious, as you’ve — as a young scientist,\ and then a person going through your entire life and then also really contributing to this field — do you think it’s possible to intentionally claim that part of our experience? Has being around children and studying children and being fascinated by them — is there any way that you think that that’s allowed you to carry the child in yourself …

Ms. Gopnik: No, I think it’s absolutely right, and it’s something that is very underappreciated in experience. And caring for children is such a profound thing, because on the one hand, it’s the most grownup, responsible, caring thing that we do, but on the other hand, it gives us a chance to be in that expanded universe. I say, you walk down to — going to get a pint of milk with a 3-year-old is like going to get a pint of milk with William Blake. Suddenly, you realize that this three blocks of completely ordinary suburban street has become, literally, invisible to you, suddenly you realize how rich it is. [laughs] There’s dogs, and there’s flyers, and there’s potholes …

Ms. Tippett: It’s full of discovery.

Ms. Gopnik: … there’s birds overhead. And for me now, as a grandmother — I simultaneously became a grandmother and very, very deeply immersed, as you are when you become a senior scientist, in the world of getting and striving and doing things and having deadlines and all the rest of it. And for me, the release from that world is the time that I spend with my grandchildren. And again, I think because women have been the ones who’ve traditionally been most engaged in that caregiving, that whole side of thinking about caring for children as itself a profoundly spiritual experience in both senses, both because it involves this kind of altruistic, moral relationship and also because it gives you a chance to be in this world of open awareness.

Ms. Tippett: In that zone with them.

Ms. Gopnik: That’s right. And I think it’s been really invisible in the tradition, because it’s been women with children who’ve been doing it, and even among women, the women with children have been so busy raising the children that they haven’t had time to write about it and talk about it and do science about it and do philosophy about it until relatively recently.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. I do want to ask you, just before I finish, just really pointedly, to this fascinating idea you have about how our species grows and progresses and changes through the effects of generations, as opposed to mere individuals. And you’re somebody who now has — you have students, you have grandchildren, you have adult children. Do you think about, right now, how this particular generation of teenagers and young adults is shifting, challenging, changing us as a whole?

Ms. Gopnik: Well, I think one of the things about being human that, again, we maybe don’t acknowledge as much is that the nature of human nature is this ability to change and this ability to be connected to a great historical past of all the people behind you, and then also to be connected to these future generations that are gonna do things that are different from the things that you do.

The myth of Orpheus is this myth about the power of the past, where you go into the future, and every time you turn back to try and recapture the past, it just vanishes. But I think there’s a kind of reverse myth of Orpheus that we have as parents, which is that we see our children, those new generations, drifting off into a future that we can’t reach, and we can’t even visualize. And the more we look into the future, the further off they seem. And there’s something — as in the myth of Orpheus, there’s something painful and sad about that. But there’s also something encouraging. There also is a sense that even if, as Martin Luther King said, even if I won’t get there with you, I can see that you’re going to get there.

And I think that’s always a feeling that we have and a feeling that becomes more and more intense as we get older, when I know that I won’t see the solution — or not — to climate change. I’m going to have to imagine my grandchildren going off into that future that isn’t even an imaginable future, for me.

But the past is that — at least the past history — is that human beings have succeeded in doing that; that they’ve succeeded in being able to envision possibilities that weren’t there before. They’ve succeeded in being robust in the face of changing environments. They’ve succeeded in actually making the world a different place than it was before. And that imagination, that capacity for fiction, is actually one of the crucial things that allows that to happen. So, of course, the hope is that — and it is interesting that, in the context of the climate crisis, it is the children and the young people who are active and hopeful, as opposed to somewhat despairing, which I think is the way a lot of older people end up feeling. And that’s clearly the road that we can imagine — by which we can imagine a hopeful future.

Ms. Tippett: There’s this wonderful quote — I can’t remember where you did this — the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, no man ever steps in the same river twice, because neither the river nor the man is the same. Our lives and our history as a species are that sort of ever-changing, perpetually flowing river — which is so much more resonant when thinking of your work in mind and just the metamorphosis that every individual person undergoes in the course of a life.

Ms. Gopnik: I think, often, when people are thinking about science and scientists or the science of human nature, they see it as a rather reductive part of saying, “OK, here are the constraints on what human nature is like. Here is what humans are doomed to be. Here’s the way that humans are doomed to be.”

And I think, actually, the science tells us something very different. What the science tells us is that there’s this stream, this river, this ability to change in unpredictable ways. And when we see our children, we actually see that in real life, for good or for ill. But that’s what human nature is all about. Human nature is culture. What’s innate in us is our capacity to learn and change. That’s what human nature is really all about. And I think that’s a much more hopeful and positive picture than maybe some of the pictures we’ve had in the past.

[music: “Seguir” by Gustavo Santaolalla]

Ms. Tippett: Alison Gopnik heads the Cognitive Development and Learning Lab at U.C. Berkeley, where she is a professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy. She’s published more than 100 journal articles and several books, including The Scientist in the Crib, The Philosophical Baby, and, most recently, The Gardener and the Carpenter.

[music: “Seguir” by Gustavo Santaolalla]

Staff: The On Being Project is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Marie Sambilay, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Profit Idowu, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Damon Lee, Suzette Burley, Zack Rose, Serri Graslie, Nicole Finn, Colleen Scheck, Christiane Wartell, and Julie Siple.

Ms. Tippett: The On Being Project is located on Dakota land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.

On Being is an independent production of The On Being Project. It is distributed to public radio stations by PRX. I created this show at American Public Media.

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Funding provided in part by the John Templeton Foundation. The Templeton Foundation supports research and civil dialogue on the deepest and most perplexing questions facing humankind: Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? To learn more, please visit templeton.org.