The Philosophical Baby by Alison Gopnik

The Philosophical Baby by Alison Gopnik

Author:Alison Gopnik
Language: eng
Format: epub
ISBN: 9781446483640
Publisher: Random House


We could simply ask children what their internal consciousness is like. This is just what the Flavells did20. Just as children’s ideas about external awareness are very different from ours, their ideas about internal consciousness are equally peculiar. We assume that we have a stream of consciousness, that thoughts, feelings, and memories flow inexorably and constantly through our minds. But even five-year-olds don’t agree. Suppose the children see Ellie, who is sitting still in a chair and staring at the wall. You ask, “Is Ellie thinking? Is anything happening in her mind right now? Is she having thoughts or feelings or ideas?” Five-year-olds deny it—if she isn’t doing anything or looking at anything her mind must be a blank.

Even more surprisingly, children think the same thing about their own minds. If you ask them whether they can keep their minds totally blank for hours they confidently say yes. They continue to say this even in circumstances when it’s clear to us that they must have been thinking. For example, suppose you get four-year-olds to listen to a bell ring every thirty seconds. Then the bell doesn’t ring. The children are startled. But if you ask them what they were just thinking they say, “Nothing.” Even more amazingly, if you explicitly ask them if they were thinking about the bell during the silence they still say “No.” Older children, like adults, report that they were thinking about the bell, wondering why it hadn’t rung, or waiting for it to ring again. The young children believe that you yourself think only when there is something right there to think about, just as Ellie thinks only when she is actually looking at something. One four-year-old summarized it this way: “Every time you think for a little while, something goes on and something goes off. Sometimes something goes on for a couple of minutes and then for a few minutes there is nothing going on.” This is very different from the adult picture of a constant stream of consciousness.

Moreover, these young children deny experiencing visual imagery or inner speech, although they understand perfectly what a picture or a sentence is like. Suppose you say to children, “I want you to answer a question in your head, but don’t say the answer out loud. Where would you find a toothbrush in your house?” Most of us do this by picturing the different rooms of the house, and then discovering the toothbrush in the bathroom. Then you ask the children if they were imagining the bathroom. Four-year-olds say no, they weren’t thinking about the bathroom, although they get the answer right if you then ask them to say it out loud.

They also say you can’t talk to yourself in your head. The Flavells asked them to think about how their teacher’s name sounded. They denied that there was any voice in their head doing the naming, and if you explicitly asked them they were as likely to say that there was a picture in their head as a voice.


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