A few years ago I read Alison Gopnik’s The Philosophical Baby and found her efforts to understand the human mind — which blend ideas from cognitive development, computer science, philosophy, storytelling, and psychology — to be very simpatico with my own attempts to understand the workings of the brain. I mentioned some of her ideas on narrative thinking vs logical argument in Social Systems are Computations that Minimize Uncertainty.
I just finished another of her books, The Gardener and The Carpenter, an exploration of the phenomenon of non-reciprocal love (exhibited, for example, by alloparents and grandparents).
It got me thinking about how in the US we typically talk about the rights you are born with, but rarely talk about the debts you are born with (eg, the debts you owe to the parents / alloparents / grandparents who raised you, the debts you owe to culture or education, etc), and that a greater awareness of / framing of these assets inherited might help promote the non-reciprocal caretaking Gopnik thinks we need more of.
Here are some of my favorite bits….
On children’s ability to learn rituals with no practical outcome:
Using a spoon to extract sorbet has an obvious practical outcome. But humans also have shared rituals. We act in ways that have no obvious practical outcome — indeed that often have no outcome at all — but are still important in identifying who we are and establishing solidarity. Dancing is a good example. When we dance with another person we establish that they are like us and we are like them, and for humans that intangible affinity may be more important than any immediate practical benefit. Although he was only a year old, Augie was already tuned in to gestures and rituals, like dancing, as well as actions and tools.
More on dancing…
The key to love in practice is doing things together — whether it’s working, child-rearing, lovemaking, taking a walk, or baking a cake — participating in the world in a way that accommodates the strengths and weaknesses of both of you.
Here’s another way to think about caregiving that isn’t like work or school. Some evolutionary theorists think that music and dancing emerged as a way of promoting social relationships. You can’t simply make another person move in a particular way and call it dancing. Dancing involves a back-and-forth between the movements of one person and another — a fine coordination between what each person does.
The back-and-forth of observation and imitation is more like that kind of expert coordination than like a form of goal-directed activity. Like dancing, it’s a form of love, not work.
Dancing Robots …
So rough-and-tumble play seems to help animals and children to interact with others. Exploratory play helps animals and children learn how things work. And pretend play helps children think about possibilities and understand other people’s minds.
But we still haven’t really answered the question about why play helps. An answer may come from engineering instead of psychology. Mother Nature may sometimes use the same techniques as the nerds who also create new creatures.
Suppose you’re trying to make a robot. You don’t just want the kind of big industrial robot that does the same thing over and over. Instead, you want a robot that will be able to adjust to an ever-changing world, the way that animals and people do. What should you do?
Designing a robot that does one thing is relatively easy. It’s much harder to design a robot that can deal with changing circumstances. You can design a robot that will walk, but what happens if you turn it on its side, or it bumps into a wall, or it sprains a knee, or even loses a limb? Living things can fluidly adjust to changes like these. Think about how a wounded soldier can make drastic adjustments to her normal gait, and learn to walk and even run on an artificial leg. But robots, on the other hand, are usually rendered helpless.
The computer scientist Hod Lipson has found that one strategy is to allow the robot to develop an internal picture of how its own body works. Then the robot can predict what will happen if something changes inside its body, or outside in the world. It’s a lot like the Bayesian children working out what would happen if the block was a zando. And the best way to do that turned out to be giving the robot a chance to play — to randomly try out different movements and work out the consequences.
A Lipson robot would start out by dancing around in a silly, random way — like a drunken cousin at a wedding — before it tried to do anything useful. But, afterward, it could use the information it collected in the playful dancing phase to decide how to act when unexpected things happened. It could still walk even when the engineers removed one of its robotic limbs. That first apparently useless dance would make the robot more robust later on.
The robot may give us a clue about the advantages of play for children, too. Play lets children randomly and variably try out a range of actions and ideas, and then work out the consequences. It might be Lipson’s robot testing the movements of its own body, the young rat trying different modes of attack and defense, the baby crow turning the stick upside down and right side up, or the child fiddling with the balance beam.
Or in pretend play, the experimentation might be more internal. The children, or the grown-up fiction readers, are considering what would happen if the world were different, and working out the consequences. How about if it was Monkey’s birthday? Or Natasha’s first ball? Or Pierre’s first battle?
The very silliness of play, the apparently random weirdness of it all, is what makes it so effective. Lipson could have tried to anticipate what his robot offspring should do in every situation, as we are tempted to do with children. But that would only give them information about what to do when the expected happens. The gift of play is the way it teaches us how to deal with the unexpected.
That may also help explain another puzzling fact about play. Why is play fun? Why do we take special pleasure in playful actions? It’s easy to learn that a goal-directed action is worth doing — after all, we reach the goal and get rewarded. But how do you ensure that an animal or a child will be able to deal with a situation that evolution hasn’t anticipated beforehand? We all perpetually face the unexpected, whether it’s a busted knee, a new wrestling (or flirting) move, or any of the psychological surprises our fellow humans throw at us. The engineering work suggests that letting a robot or an animal or a child have a chance to play — a chance to explore widely, act randomly, be silly, and do things for no reason at all — is the solution.
But to do that you need to make exploration enjoyable for its own sake, independent of any particular outcomes. It’s a bit like what happens with sex. From our internal perspective we pursue sex in search of pleasure, and babies are just a side effect. But from an evolutionary perspective it’s the other way round — reproduction is the final end and our pleasure in sex is just an incentive to get us there.
And so, we don’t play because we think that eventually it will give us robust cognitive functions — although that may be the evolutionary motivation for play. We play because it is just so much fun.
On the importance of counterfactual worlds and fiction…
The world of fiction and pretense is what philosophers call a counterfactual world. It’s a world of possibilities, where potential consequences follow from potential premises rather than from realities. Children seem to understand and respect this difference from the time they are very young. The very fact that Thomas and Peter and the rest so clearly violate the causal laws of our world is a signal to children that their stories are fictions.
Children start to pretend when they are just a year old, and pretending reaches its zenith around three or four. Since Augie began to visit my garden, it has become the home of a tiger who lives in the avocado tree, a friendly Monsters, Inc. kind of monster hiding among the cacti, and three fairies who inhabit the solar lanterns and dance to the wind chimes. You can venture out at night to watch them, as long as you hold tight to Grandmom’s hand.
The content of pretend play varies across cultures, ranging from wilder fantasies to more practical games of house and hunting. In some communities, even including some in the United States, parents actively discourage children from pretending. But in all cultures, children pretend anyway, at least some of the time. It seems that they always have. Archaeologists have recovered four-thousand-year-old dolls and miniature kitchen utensils in Bronze Age children’s quarters.
But why pretend? You can see the possible advantages of rough-and-tumble or exploratory play. The young animals have a chance to exercise the skills they’ll need as adults, or to discover something new about sticks or blicket machines. But why practice thinking things that not only aren’t true but never could be true?
In the past, psychologists such as Piaget thought that children pretended because they couldn’t distinguish between reality and fantasy. But, as we’ve seen, even very young children are adept at distinguishing between the two. At some level, they know that even the most beloved imaginary friends and feared imaginary enemies aren’t real.
So if children don’t pretend because they’re confused, why do they pretend? Pretending is closely related to another distinctively human ability, hypothetical or counterfactual thinking — that is, the ability to consider alternative ways that the world might be. And that, in turn, is central to our powerful human learning abilities.
On fragmented and discontinuous effort…
One reason we adults tend to misjudge the impact of technological change is because the experience of change is so different for adults and children. Like many others, I feel that the Internet has made my experience more fragmented, splintered, and discontinuous. But that may well not be because of the Internet itself but because I entered the world of digital technology as an adult.
All of us learned to read with the open and flexible brains of children. No one living now will experience the digital world in the spontaneous and unself-conscious way that the children born in 2017 will experience it. They will be digital natives; we speak Digital with the painful, halting accent of a recent immigrant.
My experience of the Web feels fragmented, discontinuous, and effortful because for adults, learning a new technology depends on conscious, attentive, intentional processing. In adults, this kind of attention is a very limited resource.
This is true even at the neural level. When we pay attention to something, the prefrontal cortex — the part of our brain that is responsible for conscious, goal-directed planning — controls the release of cholinergic transmitters, those chemicals that help us learn, which travel only to certain very specific parts of the brain. The prefrontal cortex also releases inhibitory transmitters that actually keep other parts of the brain from changing. So as we wrestle with a new technology, we adults can only change our minds a little bit at a time.
Attention and learning work very differently in young brains. Young animals have much more widespread cholinergic transmitters than adults, and their ability to learn doesn’t depend on planned, deliberate attention. Young brains are designed to learn from everything new, surprising, or information-rich even when it isn’t particularly relevant or useful.
So children who grow up with the digital world will master it in a way that will feel as whole and natural as reading feels to us. But that doesn’t mean that their experiences and brains won’t be shaped by the Internet, any more than my print-soaked twentieth-century life was the same as the life of a barely literate nineteenth-century farmer.
The trouble is that the present generational transformation, the click of the ratchet, is so vivid that the long historical changes and constancies are hard to see. Inevitably, the year before you were born looks like Eden, and the year after your children were born looks like Mad Max.
On the project of the bodhisattva…
Of course, the fact that emotions are evolutionarily grounded doesn’t necessarily mean that they are right. Murderous sexual jealousy and ruthless persecution of other tribes may have helped us to survive in the past and yet still doom us in the future.
There are costs to commitment. People stay in destructive, painful relationships — with children or parents, lovers, partners, or friends — long after they should have cut their losses and moved on.
A more profound cost is that these emotions are related to our tendency to divide the world into in-groups and out-groups, us and them. The flip side of my commitment to those I love is the lack of a similar commitment to those I don’t. Indeed, studies even show that the same oxytocin that helps us trust and love people inside our own group also makes us less tolerant of people outside it.
In the same way, the impulses that lead us to care so deeply about “our” children, even when those children aren’t actually related to us, can lead us to be indifferent to the children of others. For contemporary parents, the public school system is a dramatic example of this. I may believe that it would be better for all children if all children went to public schools, but that it would be better for my children to go to private ones.
Although we may recognize abstractly that caring for everybody is important, in practice we favor the welfare of our own. Some philosophical traditions — certain kinds of utilitarianism, for example — argue that this specificity is intrinsically misguided and that we should have a broader concern for the welfare of all creatures.
But surely, overall, these emotions are both sound and right. The problem of long-term cooperation would still be there for us to solve even if evolution hadn’t given us a head start, and committing to particular partners would still be a good solution. The emotions of commitment are among the most significant and profoundly human feelings. The fact that we care about the people we love for their own sake, and not for our own, is one of the foundations of our moral and even spiritual lives.
In fact, many religious and spiritual traditions articulate a human ideal that centers on these emotions. The ideal is to extend the same specific committed love that we feel so naturally for our children to everyone else. The project of the bodhisattva or the saint, loving everybody as you love your children, may be no more attainable than the utilitarian philosopher’s project of maximizing everyone’s individual welfare. Nevertheless, it’s an ideal that I, at least, find warmer and more appealing.
Once you have children, deciding how to balance the responsibilities you have to them, to other people, to work, and to yourself also raises profound riddles. When we care deeply for a child we are no longer just one person with one set of values and interests, values and interests we can weigh against one another and coordinate with the values and interests of others. Instead, a parent is a person whose self has been expanded to include the values and interests of another person, even when those values and interests are different from his. How do you balance and coordinate interests when the interests of the other person both are and are not your own?
The answer is that there is no simple answer. Berlin argues that in these cases of conflicting values the best we can do is muddle through and make the best decision we can given the particular context. There is no decision that is best in some absolute way, and we need to accept both the guilt and regret, and the consolations, that follow from this.
I definitely recommend this book.