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Why Can’t I Be You: Alison Gopnik

The developmental psychologist and philosopher on learning what other people think.

Collage by Ruby A.

Collage by Ruby A.

One of the greatest mysteries of life is what goes on in other people’s minds. How well do you really know your parents, your siblings, your friends, your dog, or your significant other? The developmental psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik explores what human consciousness looks like at various stages of development, starting from when we’re babies. She has written about it in books including The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind (co-written with Andrew N. Meltzoff and Patricia K. Kuhl) and The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life. After watching her 2011 TED Talk, in which she describes the way consciousness changes shape over the course of our lives, I started thinking about how understanding other people starts with how we experience the world. So I got in touch with Gopnik, who is a professor of philosophy and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and we talked on the phone about what it’s like to imagine other people’s imaginations, why it’s important to care in the first place, and why teenagers may have expanded consciousnesses.


ROSE: You study consciousness, and specifically what consciousness is like for people at different ages. There may be no greater unknown than What Other People Think. How motivated are you by the idea of trying to answer a seemingly impossible question?

ALISON GOPNIK: That impossibility is part of what it makes it so interesting. You might think, “How could you ever know what it’s like to be a baby?” Philosophers have said, well, there’s nothing we can know about other people’s consciousness. It’s just a fundamental, unapproachable mystery. But in my experience, if we keep looking at it and thinking about it, it’s amazing how much progress we can make, including answering questions about what it’s like to be an infant.

Why is it so important to try to understand what other people think?

Human beings are really social animals. One of the big differences between other animals and us is that we depend on other people for just about everything. And that means that having the ability to imagine other people’s minds and thoughts is crucial to being a successful human. One of the problems that we have in philosophy is that we have tended only to consider the consciousness of a philosopher—historically the grownup, white, male philosopher sitting in an armchair. Thinking about what life might be like for a creature that wasn’t like that—an animal, a child, [other] adults—can really broaden our horizons, and keep us from being narrowly focused on what consciousness is like if you’re the sort of person who is writing about consciousness.

How does imagination relate to the formation of our consciousness?

One of the problems that children are trying to solve is what’s going on in other people’s minds. As children are growing up, they are getting better and better at taking the perspective of another person and understanding things from another person’s point of view. It starts very early—even 18-month-old babies attempt to understand what another person wants, and how it differs from what they want themselves. This continues to be a problem to solve all the way through being a grownup. And the facility for imagination, the ability to understand different points of view—the same thing you use when you read novels or see great films—is a lot about trying to work out how other people think.

One thing about your work that really strikes me is the idea that an adult has a consciousness like a spotlight, which they can focus intensely on one thing at a time. A child, on the other hand, has consciousness like a lantern that gives off rays of light in all directions—they can absorb a lot more information but are not so good at focusing on one particular thing.

In my first book, The Scientist in the Crib, I argued that a lot of what children are doing in terms of problem solving is what scientists are doing. To be a scientist, you need to have that open-minded curiosity and do whatever it takes to get an answer. You don’t do things because you think you’re going to get a grant or money or even because you think you’re going to do something useful. You experiment for the sheer love of seeing things out. I think you really see that urge in its purest form in two-, three-, and four-year-olds, where the most important thing in their lives is figuring out what’s going on around them.

When I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time looking backward and forward at the same time. I wanted desperately to be independent and make my own choices, yet I missed the excitement about the world that I felt as a young child. It’s almost as if I was experiencing psychic growing pains as I shifted from lantern consciousness to spotlight consciousness. It seems like teenagers often feel torn between two ways of being. Is that something you’ve noticed, too?

I’ve spent my whole career researching babies and young children, and I’m just now planning to research teenagers. Adolescence might be the time in which there is a reengaging with that kind of wideness and openness. If you look at babies and preschoolers, they are trying out a million new things, and they are very emotional and volatile. School-age children have this agenda where they are more like grownups. They want to learn from their teachers about how things should be done. Teenagers seem to return to how preschoolers are. They don’t just accept what people say to them, they explore, they are curious, they take risks, they try on lots of different possibilities. The important difference is that with preschoolers, all that exploring happens in this very safe setting where you don’t have to make any decisions and all of your needs are taken care of by your caregivers. But with teenagers, that experimenting is happening out in the real world where you can’t rely on being protected. It’s quite interesting when you consider that the innovations of adolescence might be a result of that rebooting of the free will and urge to take risks, combined with a new adult competence.

It also seems like nostalgia is an important part of being a teenager. You’re super conscious of how you’ve changed, and what you may have lost in terms of engagement with the world.

I think that kind of expanded consciousness can come at any time, but adolescence is certainly a time where people experience this a lot, even though you’ve also got all these other responsibilities. There’s a constant tension between wanting to be in this wide-open creative space and having to go to high school and get your homework done. It’s an important feature of adolescent thought.

From your perspective, is there a way to hold on to the lantern consciousness, even as growing up demands that we operate more like spotlights?

Traveling is a really good way to reopen your mind. Trying to do something new is another way to get to that place. Putting yourself in a situation where everything is new is a good way to return to that child-like consciousness. Like when an artist says, “Oh, I am going to try painting with foot-long paintbrushes just so I am out of my comfort zone.” But you probably don’t want the lantern consciousness to be part of who you are at all times. After all, three-year-olds are like scientists, but they can’t tie their shoes or make lunch. As an adult, you’d probably like to be able to tie your shoes and ignore distraction and get things done. I think the secret is finding a balance. As a scientist, for example, I have to write grant proposals, and I have to get work done on time, and I have to balance those responsibilities with the pursuit of that kind of openness and curiosity that is really important for making discoveries.

How did you get interested in psychology and theory of mind?

I started out my career in philosophy instead of psychology. I studied philosophy because I wanted to answer some of the questions about how we come to understand the world around us. And one of those big philosophical questions, which people sometimes call “the other mind question,” is How do we ever understand what’s going on in someone else’s mind?

I was the oldest of six children and I spent a lot of time with babies and young children. I began to think that a good way to answer those questions was to look at kids because they are in the process of trying to answer them, too. But back in the ’70s, you could look at 2,500 years of philosophy and not even know that children had existed, and for sort of obvious reasons. Philosophers were mostly men and most of them weren’t even married men. So when I started talking about children back in the ’70s, there were a lot of people who said, “This doesn’t make sense, this isn’t part of philosophy.” One of my teachers at the University of Oxford said, [in a prim British accent] “Well one has seen children about, hasn’t one, but one wouldn’t ever actually speak to them.” So I switched from doing philosophy to doing developmental psychology because when I looked at children I found them to be incredibly fascinating and interesting. I never looked back.

Was there also resistance in the psychology community to taking children seriously in this way?

There was. The traditional wisdom about children was that there wasn’t much going on in their minds. They were blank slates, they lived in a bubble of confusion, or they were eccentric, irrational, or precausal—to name just a few insults from psychologists. In developmental psychology, we’ve had a very narrow range of context. We’re only now attempting to understand how scientific assumptions come from white, educated, industrial, rich, and democratic cultures. That’s not what most of human history has been like. Fortunately, a whole community of people started questioning our assumptions and started trying to get babies and children to tell us what they know in their language, instead of our language. And when we did that, we discovered that they knew much more and learned much more and thought much more than we ever imagined.

It is an interesting dilemma for me as a woman because philosophy has been very dominated by men, there are still very few women in philosophy. And of course developmental psychology is the sort of thing that people think girls should do, which is pay attention to babies. I went back and forth a lot about whether I should go into philosophy and do the thing that women were not supposed to do, or go into developmental psychology and do the thing that women were supposed to do—and therefore wasn’t taken very seriously. Eventually I decided, YES, this is something women have thought about for a long time, and it’s really, really important, and I’m going to tell you how important it is to science and philosophy and the big questions we are trying to answer. ♦

5 Comments

  • ghostelic July 27th, 2014 1:09 PM

    this is one of the best interviews i’ve ever read. really interesting.

  • Me_Magalloway July 28th, 2014 10:35 AM

    The analogy of the “lantern focus” to “spotlight focus” is really interesting. I’d like to read some more about this!

    http://navigating-fairyland.blogspot.com/

  • Vlada July 29th, 2014 2:19 PM

    This is THE interview. Thank you for introducing me (and ignorant) to this amazing woman’s work

  • elektraheart August 1st, 2014 4:29 PM

    Amazing

  • aikaendi September 15th, 2014 12:05 PM

    This is such an interesting interview! As a seventeen year old who (at least at the moment) want to become a scientist in either psychology, sociology or gender studies, these kind of articles are just to die for! Gopnik seems like an amazing scientist and person, and she shares a very interesting perspective on human mind.