The Scientist in the Crib by Alision Gopnik, Andrew Meltzoff, and Patricia Kuhl New York, NY, Harper Perennial, 2001, 279pp, $14.00.
How is it, the authors of this wonderful book ask, that infants come to learn so much so fast? After all, the information that enters their senses is really quite fragmentary and disjointed. Yet within a year, they have come to understand that other people have an existence outside of their own, that objects obey certain laws of movement and form, and that sounds can be used as symbols.
Drs. Gopnick, Melzoff, and Kuhl make the case for a threefold answer. First, babies have powerful learning mechanisms wired into their brains that allow them to constantly revise, reshape, and restructure their knowledge. Second, they have fabulous teachers: their parents and other devoted caregivers. These first two answers would have been no surprise to Piaget, but the third one would be (as it was to me): they are born with a great deal of inherent knowledge about people and objects and language.
In a wonderfully accessible style, the authors then discuss the most important research of the last few decades that validates this complex mix of nature and nurture. First, they discuss how and what children learn about other people (the “theory of mind”), then what children learn about things, and finally what children learn about language. In each chapter they intersperse compelling professional and personal anecdotes with capsule summaries of groundbreaking studies in infant cognitive psychology. Then they put this information into perspective, showing how the ground has shifted since Piaget first entered the scene. They conclude with the inevitable discussion of brain development and the brain as a specialized computer crafted by evolution, followed by a discussion of the practical and philosophical implications of this new science of infant cognition.
I loved this book. It’s a painless way to become familiar with the most significant post-Piagetian research on infant cognition. The authors’ writing style is clear and unfussy. They combine a delightful sense of humor with clear descriptions of hard science, and then they tell you how it all fits together. It’s a terrific read — one that can be appreciated by any parent who wants to understand what might be going on under the wide staring eyes of his or her infant and by any professional who wants to be up to date on the latest theories of how infants learn to think.