Why Adults Lose the ‘Beginner’s Mind’

The psychologist Alison Gopnik and Ezra Klein discuss what children can teach adults about learning, consciousness and play.,

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Why Adults Lose the ‘Beginner’s Mind’

The psychologist Alison Gopnik and Ezra Klein discuss what children can teach adults about learning, consciousness and play.

Friday, April 16th, 2021

[MUSIC PLAYING]

ezra klein

I’m Ezra Klein, and this is “The Ezra Klein Show.”

It probably won’t surprise you that I’m one of those parents who reads a lot of books about parenting. And they’re mostly bad, particularly the books for dads. So many of those books have this weird, “dude, you’re going to be a dad, bro,” tone. It’s a terrible literature. But one of the great finds for me in the parenting book world has been Alison Gopnik’s work. Gopnik runs the Cognitive Development and Learning Lab at UC Berkeley. She’s in both the psychology and philosophy departments there. She’s part of the A.I. working group there. And one of the things about her work, the thing that sets it apart for me is she uses children and studies children to understand all of us. She takes childhood seriously as a phase in human development. And why not, right? You’re watching consciousness come online in real-time. You’re watching language and culture and social rules being absorbed and learned and changed, importantly changed. Her books haven’t just changed how I look at my son. They’ve really changed how I look at myself, how I look at all of us. And one of them in particular that I read recently is “The Philosophical Baby,” which blew my mind a little bit. Because what she does in that book is show through a lot of experiments and research that there is a way in which children are a lot smarter than adults — I think that’s the right way to say that — a way in which their strangest, silliest seeming behaviors are actually remarkable. This is her core argument. Children are tuned to learn. And when you tune a mind to learn, it actually used to work really differently than a mind that already knows a lot. The efficiency that our minds develop as we get older, it has amazing advantages. Unlike my son — and I don’t want to brag here — unlike my son, I can make it from his bedroom to the kitchen without any stops along the way. I can just get right there. But also, unlike my son, I take so much for granted. I have so much trouble actually taking the world on its own terms and trying to derive how it works. I’ve learned so much that I’ve lost the ability to unlearn what I know. And that means I’ve also sometimes lost the ability to question things correctly. So this isn’t just a conversation about kids or for parents. It’s a conversation about humans for humans. We spend so much time and effort trying to teach kids to think like adults. A message of Gopnik’s work and one I take seriously is we need to spend more time and effort as adults trying to think more like kids. As always, my email is ezrakleinshow@nytimes.com, if you’ve got something to teach me. But here is Alison Gopnik.

You write that children aren’t just defective adults, primitive grown-ups, who are gradually attaining our perfection and complexity. Instead, children and adults are different forms of Homo sapiens. How so?

alison gopnik

Well, from an evolutionary biology point of view, one of the things that’s really striking is this relationship between what biologists call life history, how our developmental sequence unfolds, and things like how intelligent we are. And there’s a very, very general relationship between how long a period of childhood an organism has and roughly how smart they are, how big their brains are, how flexible they are. And an idea that I think a lot of us have now is that part of that is because you’ve really got these two different creatures. So you’ve got one creature that’s really designed to explore, to learn, to change. That’s the child form. And then you’ve got this other creature that’s really designed to exploit, as computer scientists say, to go out, find resources, make plans, make things happen, including finding resources for that wild, crazy explorer that you have in your nursery. And the idea is that those two different developmental and evolutionary agendas come with really different kinds of cognition, really different kinds of computation, really different kinds of brains, and I think with very different kinds of experiences of the world. So, the very way that you experience the world, your consciousness, is really different if your agenda is going to be, get the next thing done, figure out how to do it, figure out what the next thing to do after that is, versus extract as much information as I possibly can from the world. And I think adults have the capacity to some extent to go back and forth between those two states. But I think that babies and young children are in that explore state all the time. That’s really what they’re designed to do. They’re like a different kind of creature than the adult. You sort of might think about, well, are there other ways that evolution could have solved this explore, exploit trade-off, this problem about how do you get a creature that can do things, but can also learn things really widely? And Peter Godfrey-Smith’s wonderful book — I’ve just been reading “Metazoa” — talks about the octopus. And the octopus is very puzzling because the octos don’t have a long childhood. And yet, they seem to be really smart, and they have these big brains with lots of neurons. But it also turns out that octos actually have divided brains. So they have one brain in the center in their head, and then they have another brain or maybe eight brains in each one of the tentacles. And if you actually watch what the octos do, the tentacles are out there doing the explorer thing. They’re getting information, figuring out what the water is like. And then the central head brain is doing things like saying, OK, now it’s time to squirt. Now it’s time to get food. So, my thought is that we could imagine an alternate evolutionary path by which each of us was both a child and an adult. So imagine if your arms were like your two-year-old, right? So that you are always trying to get them to stop exploring because you had to get lunch. I suspect that may be what the consciousness of an octo is like. Now, we’re obviously not like that. But I think even human adults, that might be an interesting kind of model for some of what it’s like to be a human adult in particular. So I think we have children who really have this explorer brain and this explorer experience. They’re kind of like our tentacles. They’re going out and figuring things out in the world. And then we have adults who are really the head brain, the one that’s actually going out and doing things. But I think even as adults, we can have this kind of split brain phenomenon, where a bit of our experience is like being a child again and vice versa.

ezra klein

I feel like that’s an answer that’s going to launch 100 science fiction short stories, as people imagine the stories you’re describing here. One of the things I really like about this is that it pushes towards a real respect for the child’s brain. If one defined intelligence as the ability to learn and to learn fast and to learn flexibly, a two-year-old is a lot more intelligent right now than I am. I have more knowledge, and I have more experience, and I have more ability to exploit existing learnings. But they have more capacity and flexibility and changeability. Is that right? And to the extent it is, what gives it that flexibility? What are the trade-offs to have that flexibility?

alison gopnik

Yeah, so I think a really deep idea that comes out of computer science originally — in fact, came out of the original design of the computer — is this idea of the explore or exploit trade-off is what they call it. So if you’re thinking about intelligence, there’s a real genuine tradeoff between your ability to explore as many options as you can versus your ability to quickly, efficiently commit to a particular option and implement it. And it turns out that even if you just do the math, it’s really impossible to get a system that optimizes both of those things at the same time, that is exploring and exploiting simultaneously because they’re really deeply in tension with one another. And the way that computer scientists have figured out to try to solve this problem very characteristically is give the system a chance to explore first, give it a chance to figure out all the information, and then once it’s got the information, it can go out and it can exploit later on. So, explore first and then exploit. And I think that evolution has used that strategy in designing human development in particular because we have this really long childhood. But I think you can see the same thing in non-human animals and not just in mammals, but in birds and maybe even in insects. So you see this really deep tension, which I think we’re facing all the time between how much are we considering different possibilities and how much are we acting efficiently and swiftly. There’s, again, an intrinsic tension between how much you know and how open you are to new possibilities. So, again, just sort of something you can formally show is that if I know a lot, then I should really rely on that knowledge. And I should, to some extent, discount something new that somebody tells me. Whereas if I don’t know a lot, then almost by definition, I have to be open to more knowledge. But I think it’s more than just the fact that you have what the Zen masters call beginner’s mind, right, that you start out not knowing as much. I think we can actually point to things like the physical makeup of a child’s brain and an adult brain that makes them differently adapted for exploring and exploiting.

ezra klein

You have some work on this. What does look different in the two brains?

alison gopnik

So there’s two big areas of development that seem to be different. So one of them is that the young brain seems to start out making many, many new connections. So what you’ll see when you look at a chart of synaptic development, for instance, is, you’ve got this early period when many, many, many new connections are being made. And then you’ve got this later period where the connections that are used a lot that are working well, they get maintained, they get strengthened, they get to be more efficient. And then the ones that aren’t are pruned, as neuroscientists say. They kind of disappear. The consequence of that is that you have this young brain that has a lot of what neuroscientists call plasticity. It can change really easily, essentially. But it’s not very good at putting on its jacket and getting into preschool in the morning. It’s not very good at doing anything that is the sort of things that you need to act well. And it’s especially not good at things like inhibition. It’s especially not good at doing things like having one part of the brain restrict what another part of the brain is going to do. So that’s one change that’s changed from this lots of local connections, lots of plasticity, to something that’s got longer and more efficient connections, but is less changeable. The other change that’s particularly relevant to humans is that we have the prefrontal cortex. That’s the part of our brain that’s sort of the executive office of the brain, where long-term planning, inhibition, focus, all those things seem to be done by this part of the brain. And what happens with development is that that part of the brain, that executive part gets more and more control over the rest of the brain as you get older. So that the ability to have an impulse in the back of your brain and the front of your brain can come in and shut that out. Or there’s a distraction in the back of your brain, something that is in your visual field that isn’t relevant to what you do. And the frontal part can literally shut down that other part of your brain. But that process takes a long time. So when you start out, you’ve got much less of that kind of frontal control, more of, I guess, in some ways, almost more like the octos where parts of your brain are doing their own thing. And then as you get older, you get more and more of that control.

ezra klein

And is that the dynamic that leads to this spotlight consciousness, lantern consciousness distinction? And can you talk about that? Because I know I think about it all the time.

alison gopnik

So those are two really, really different kinds of consciousness. One kind of consciousness — this is an old metaphor — is to think about attention as being like a spotlight. It comes in. It illuminates the thing that you want to find out about. And you don’t see the things that are on the other side. And I think that in other states of consciousness, especially the state of consciousness you’re in when you’re a child — but I think there are things that adults do that put them in that state as well — you have something that’s much more like a lantern. So you’re actually taking in information from everything that’s going on around you. And the most important thing is, is this going to teach me something? Is this new? Is this interesting? Is this curious, rather than focusing your attention and consciousness on just one thing at a time. So, a lot of the theories of consciousness start out from what I think of as professorial consciousness. So, surprise, surprise, when philosophers and psychologists are thinking about consciousness, they think about the kind of consciousness that philosophers and psychologists have a lot of the time. And that sort of consciousness is, say, you’re sitting in your chair. You have the paper to write. You’re desperately trying to focus on the specific things that you said that you would do. And then you kind of get distracted, and your mind wanders a bit. And you start ruminating about other things. And that kind of goal-directed, focused, consciousness, which goes very much with the sense of a self — so there’s a me that’s trying to finish up the paper or answer the emails or do all the things that I have to do — that’s really been the focus of a lot of theories of consciousness, is if that kind of consciousness was what consciousness was all about. And we even can show neurologically that, for instance, what happens in that state is when I attend to something, when I pay attention to something, what happens is the thing that I’m paying attention to becomes much brighter and more vivid. And I actually shut down all the other things that I’m not paying attention to. You can even see that in the brain. So the part of your brain that’s relevant to what you’re attending to becomes more active, more plastic, more changeable. And the other nearby parts get shut down, again, inhibited. So there’s a really nice picture about what happens in professorial consciousness. That’s kind of how consciousness works. And again, maybe not surprisingly, people have acted as if that kind of consciousness is what consciousness is really all about. That’s really what you want when you’re conscious. And what I would argue is there’s all these other kinds of states of experience — and not just me, other philosophers as well. There’s all these other kinds of ways of being sentient, ways of being aware, ways of being conscious, that are not like that at all. So, one interesting example that there’s actually some studies of is to think about when you’re completely absorbed in a really interesting movie. You’re kind of gone. Your self is gone. You’re not deciding what to pay attention to in the movie. The movie is just completely captivating. In the state of that focused, goal-directed consciousness, those frontal areas are very involved and very engaged. And there seem to actually be two pathways. One of them is the one that’s sort of here’s the goal-directed pathway, what they sometimes call the task dependent activity. And then the other one is what’s sometimes called the default mode. And that’s the sort of ruminating or thinking about the other things that you have to do, being in your head, as we say, as the other mode. When you look at someone who’s in the scanner, who’s really absorbed in a great movie, neither of those parts are really active. And instead, other parts of the brain are more active. And that brain, the brain of the person who’s absorbed in the movie, looks more like the child’s brain.

ezra klein

But now, whether you’re a philosopher or not, or an academic or a journalist or just somebody who spends a lot of time on their computer or a student, we now have a modernity that is constantly training something more like spotlight consciousness, probably more so than would have been true at other times in human history. And something that I took from your book is that there is the ability to train, or at least, experience different kinds of consciousness through different kinds of other experiences like travel, or you talk about meditation. But one of the thoughts it triggered for me, as somebody who’s been pretty involved in meditation for the last decade or so, there’s a real dominance of the vipassana style concentration meditation, single point meditations. Just watch the breath. Just think about the breath right at the edge of the nostril. And without taking anything away from that tradition, it made me wonder if one reason that has become so dominant in America, and particularly in Northern California, is because it’s a very good match for the kind of concentration in consciousness that our economy is consciously trying to develop in us, this get things done, be very focused, don’t ruminate too much, like a neoliberal form of consciousness. Do you think there’s something to that?

alison gopnik

I think that there’s a paradox about, for example, going out and saying, I am going to meditate and stop trying to get goals. Because I have this goal, which is I want to be a much better meditator. And I have done a bit of meditation and workshops, and it’s always a little amusing when you see the young men who are going to prove that they’re better at meditating. They can sit for longer than anybody else can. But I think it’s important to say when you’re thinking about things like meditation, or you’re thinking about alternative states of consciousness in general, that there’s lots of different alternative states of consciousness. So it isn’t just a choice between lantern and spotlight. There’s lots of different ways that we have of being in the world, lots of different kinds of experiences that we have. And I suspect that they each come with a separate, a different kind of focus, a different way of being. And in meditation, you can see the contrast between some of these more pointed kinds of meditation versus what’s sometimes called open awareness meditation. So open awareness meditation is when you’re not just focused on one thing, when you try to be open to everything that’s going on around you. And the phenomenology of that is very much like this kind of lantern, that everything at once is illuminated. And I think that kind of open-ended meditation and the kind of consciousness that it goes with is actually a lot like things that, for example, the romantic poets, like Wordsworth, talked about. So there’s this lovely concept that I like of the numinous. And sometimes it’s connected with spirituality, but I don’t think it has to be. It’s this idea that you’re going through the world. And often, quite suddenly, if you’re an adult, everything in the world seems to be significant and important and important and significant in a way that makes you insignificant by comparison. My colleague, Dacher Keltner, has studied awe. And awe is kind of an example of this. But the numinous sort of turns up the dial on awe. And part of the numinous is it doesn’t just have to be about something that’s bigger than you, like a mountain. It could just be your garden or the street that you’re walking on. And suddenly that becomes illuminated. Everything around you becomes illuminated. And you yourself sort of disappear. And I think that’s kind of the best analogy I can think of for the state that the children are in. And it’s worth saying, it’s not like the children are always in that state. So the children, perhaps because they spend so much time in that state, also can be fussy and cranky and desperately wanting their next meal or desperately wanting comfort. They’re not always in that kind of broad state. But I think they spend much more of their time in that state. That’s more like their natural state than adults are.

ezra klein

Do you think for kids that play or imaginative play should be understood as a form of consciousness, a state?

alison gopnik

Yeah, that’s a really good question. So there’s really a kind of coherent whole about what childhood is all about. So if you think from this broad evolutionary perspective about these creatures that are designed to explore, I think there’s a whole lot of other things that go with that. So one thing that goes with that is this broad-based consciousness. But another thing that goes with it is the activity of play. And if you think about play, the definition of play is that it’s the thing that you do when you’re not working. Now it’s not a form of experience and consciousness so much, but it’s a form of activity. It’s a form of actually doing things that, nevertheless, have this characteristic of not being immediately directed to a goal. If you look across animals, for example, very characteristically, it’s the young animals that are playing across an incredibly wide range of different kinds of animals. Sometimes if they’re mice, they’re play fighting. And if they’re crows, they’re playing with twigs and figuring out how they can use the twigs. So, what goes on in play is different. But it’s really fascinating that it’s the young animals who are playing. And all of the theories that we have about play are play’s another form of this kind of exploration. So it’s another way of having this explore state of being in the world. Now it’s not so much about you’re visually taking in all the information around you the way that you do when you’re exploring. Now it’s more like you’re actually doing things on the world to try to explore the space of possibilities. Another thing that people point out about play is play is fun. There’s a certain kind of happiness and joy that goes with being in that state when you’re just playing. And again, it’s not the state that kids are in all the time. But it’s the state that they’re in a lot of the time and a state that they’re in when they’re actually engaged in play. One of the things that’s really fascinating that’s coming out in A.I. now — and I’ve been spending a lot of time collaborating with people in computer science at Berkeley who are trying to design better artificial intelligence systems — the current systems that we have, I mean, the languages they’re designed to optimize, they’re really exploit systems. What you do with these systems is say, here’s what your goal is. You go out and maximize that goal. And it turns out that if you have a system like that, it will be very good at doing the things that it was optimized for, but not very good at being resilient, not very good at changing when things are different, right? I’ve been really struck working with people in robotics, for example. When people say, well, the robots have trouble generalizing, they don’t mean they have trouble generalizing from driving a Tesla to driving a Lexus. They mean they have trouble going from putting the block down at this point to putting the block down a centimeter to the left, right? I mean, they really have trouble generalizing even when they’re very good. And it turns out that if you get these systems to have a period of play, where they can just be generating things in a wilder way or get them to train on a human playing, they end up being much more resilient. They’re much better at generalizing, which is, of course, the great thing that children are also really good at.

ezra klein

I was thinking about how a moment ago, you said, play is what you do when you’re not working. And I was thinking, it’s absolutely not what I do when I’m not working. I’m constantly like you, sitting here, being like, don’t work. And that’s not playing. And in fact, I think I’ve lost a lot of my capacity for play. I’ve trained myself to be productive so often that it’s sometimes hard to put it down. And it takes actual, dedicated effort to not do things that feel like work to me. What’s lost in that? Because I think there’s cultural pressure to not play, but I think that your research and some of the others suggest maybe we’ve made a terrible mistake on that by not honoring play more.

alison gopnik

Yeah, I think there’s a lot of evidence for that. And it’s interesting that, as I say, the hard-headed engineers, who are trying to do things like design robots, are increasingly realizing that play is something that’s going to actually be able to get you systems that do better in going through the world. Part of the problem — and this is a general explore or exploit problem. Part of the problem with play is if you think about it in terms of what its long-term benefits are going to be, then it isn’t play anymore. And if you sort of set up any particular goal, if you say, oh, well, if you play more, you’ll be more robust or more resilient. And you say, OK, so now I want to design you to do this particular thing well. Then you’re always going to do better by just optimizing for that particular thing than by playing. So what play is really about is about this ability to change, to be resilient in the face of lots of different environments, in the face of lots of different possibilities. It’s about dealing with something new or unexpected. And it’s interesting that if you look at what might look like a really different literature, look at studies about the effects of preschool on later development in children. So when they first started doing these studies where you looked at the effects of an enriching preschool — and these were play-based preschools, the way preschools still are to some extent and certainly should be and have been in the past. So, basically, you put a child in a rich environment where there’s lots of opportunities for play. And it turned out that if you looked at things like just how well you did on a standardized test, after a couple of years, the effects seem to sort of fade out. And that was an argument against early education. But it turns out that if you look 30 years later, you have these sleeper effects where these children who played are not necessarily getting better grades three years later. But they’re not going to prison. Their health is better. Their salaries are higher. And what that suggests is the things that having a lot of experience with play was letting you do was to be able to deal with unexpected challenges better, rather than that it was allowing you to attain any particular outcome. And it really makes it tricky if you want to do evidence-based policy, which we all want to do. And —

ezra klein

That’s optimistic.

alison gopnik

Well, or what at least some people want to do. Any kind of metric that you said, almost by definition, if it’s the metric, you’re going to do better if you teach to the test. So there’s always this temptation to do that, even though the advantages that play gives you seem to be these advantages of robustness and resilience. So for instance, if you look at rats and you look at the rats who get to do play fighting versus rats who don’t, it’s not that the rats who play can do things that the rats can’t play can, like every specific fighting technique the rats will have. But if you look at their subtlety at their ability to deal with context, at their ability to decide when should I do this versus that, how should I deal with the whole ensemble that I’m in, that’s where play has its great advantages.

ezra klein

Do you play?

alison gopnik

Well, I was going to say, when you were saying that you don’t play, you read science fiction, right? And you watch the Marvel Comics universe movies.

ezra klein

I do, do that.

alison gopnik

And I think for grown-ups, that’s really the equivalent of the kind of — especially the kind of pretend play and imaginative play that you see in children. And those two things are very parallel. There’s even a nice study by Marjorie Taylor who studied a lot of this imaginative play that when you talk to people who are adult writers, for example, they tell you that they remember their imaginary friends from when they were kids. Everybody has imaginary friends. But it’s sort of like they keep them in their Rolodex. They keep in touch with their imaginary friends. And I think for adults, a lot of the function, which has always been kind of mysterious — like, why would reading about something that hasn’t happened help you to understand things that have happened, or why would it be good in general — I think for adults a lot of that kind of activity is the equivalent of play. And I don’t do that as much as I would like to or as much as I did 20 years ago, which makes me think a little about how the society has changed. But I do think that counts as play for adults. And of course, you’ve got the best play thing there could be, which is if you’ve got a two-year-old or a three-year-old or a four-year-old, they kind of force you to be in that state, whether you start out wanting to be or not.

ezra klein

Yeah, there’s definitely something to that. I’ve had to spend a lot more time thinking about pickle trucks now. [MUSIC PLAYING]

One of the arguments you make throughout the book is that children play a population level role, right? We’re talking here about the way a child becomes an adult, how do they learn, how do they play in a way that keeps them from going to jail later. But you sort of say that children are the R&D wing of our species and that as generations turn over, we change in ways and adapt to things in ways that the normal genetic pathway of evolution wouldn’t necessarily predict. And we do it partially through children. Could you talk a bit about that, what this sort of period of plasticity is doing at scale?

alison gopnik

Yeah, so I think that’s a good question. And we don’t really completely know what the answer is. But, again, the sort of baseline is that humans have this really, really long period of immaturity. So we have more different people who are involved and engaged in taking care of children. And all that looks as if it’s very evolutionarily costly. So there’s a question about why would it be. Now, of course, it could just be an epiphenomenon. But it seems to be a really general pattern across so many different species at so many different times. So what kind of function could that serve? Well, if you think about human beings, we’re being faced with unexpected environments all the time. One way you could think about it is, our ecological niche is the unknown unknowns. That’s really what we’re adapted to, are the unknown unknowns. That’s what we’re all about. And of course, once we develop a culture, that just gets to be more true because each generation is going to change its environment in various ways that affect its culture. And that means that now, the next generation is going to have yet another new thing to try to deal with and to understand. So I think more and more, especially in the cultural context, that having a new generation that can look around at everything around it and say, let me try to make sense out of this, or let me understand this and let me think of all the new things that I could do, given this new environment, which is the thing that children, and I think not just infants and babies, but up through adolescence, that children are doing, that could be a real advantage. And then once you’ve done that kind of exploration of the space of possibilities, then as an adult now in that environment, you can decide which of those things you want to have happen.

ezra klein

Does this help explain why revolutionary political ideas are so much more appealing to sort of teens and 20 somethings and then why so much revolutionary political action comes from those age groups, comes from students? It’s partially this ability to exist within the imaginarium and have a little bit more of a porous border between what exists and what could than you have when you’re 50.

alison gopnik

So we actually did some really interesting experiments where we were looking at how these kinds of flexibility develop over the space of development. And one of the things that we discovered was that if you look at your understanding of the physical world, the preschoolers are the most flexible, and then they get less flexible at school age and then less so with adolescence. But if you look at the social world, there’s really this burst of plasticity and flexibility in adolescence. And the neuroscience suggests that, too. So if you look at the social parts of the brain, you see this kind of rebirth of plasticity and flexibility in adolescence. And I think that that’s exactly what you were saying, exactly what that’s for, is that it gives the adolescents a chance to consider new kinds of social possibilities, and to take the information that they got from the people around them and say, OK, given that that’s true, what’s something new that we could do? What’s something different from what we’ve done before? And if you look at the literature about cultural evolution, I think it’s true that culture is one of the really distinctive human capacities. There’s this constant tension between imitation and innovation. So to have a culture, one thing you need to do is to have a generation that comes in and can take advantage of all the other things that the previous generations have learned. But of course, what you also want is for that new generation to be able to modify and tweak and change and alter the things that the previous generation has done. And I think the period of childhood and adolescence in particular gives you a chance to be that kind of cutting edge of change. And empirically, what you see is that very often for things like music or clothing or culture or politics or social change, you see that the adolescents are on the edge, for better or for worse. And again, there’s this kind of tradeoff tension between all us cranky, old people saying, what’s wrong with kids nowadays? Because there’s a reason why the previous generation is doing the things that they’re doing and the sense of, here’s this great range of possibilities that we haven’t considered before.

ezra klein

What does this somewhat deeper understanding of the child’s brain imply for caregivers? What does taking more seriously what these states of consciousness are like say about how you should act as a parent and uncle and aunt, a grandparent?

alison gopnik

Well, I think here’s the wrong message to take, first of all, which I think is often the message that gets taken from this kind of information, especially in our time and our place and among people in our culture. The wrong message is, oh, OK, they’re doing all this learning, so we better start teaching them really, really early. We better make sure that all this learning is going to be shaped in the way that we want it to be shaped. And we better make sure that we’re doing the right things, and we’re buying the right apps, and we’re reading the right books, and we’re doing the right things to shape that kind of learning in the way that we, as adults, think that it should be shaped. And that’s not the right thing. That’s actually working against the very function of this early period of exploration and learning. But I do think something that’s important is that the very mundane investment that we make as caregivers, keeping the kids alive, figuring out what it is that they want or need at any moment, those things that are often very time consuming and require a lot of work, it’s that context of being secure and having resources and not having to worry about the immediate circumstances that you’re in. That context that caregivers provide, that’s absolutely crucial. It’s absolutely essential for that broad-based learning and understanding to happen. So just by doing — just by being a caregiver, just by caring, what you’re doing is providing the context in which this kind of exploration can take place. And we’re pretty well designed to think it’s good to care for children in the first place. But I think especially for sort of self-reflective parents, the fact that part of what you’re doing is allowing that to happen is really important. And then the other thing is that I think being with children in that way is a great way for adults to get a sense of what it would be like to have that broader focus. So, going for a walk with a two-year-old is like going for a walk with William Blake. You go to the corner to get milk, and part of what we can even show from the neuroscience is that as adults, when you do something really often, you become habituated. You do the same thing over and over again. It kind of disappears from your consciousness. You’re not doing it with much experience. And again, that’s a lot of the times, that’s a good thing because there’s other things that we have to do. But if you do the same walk with a two-year-old, you realize, wait a minute. This, three blocks, it’s just amazing. It’s so rich. There’s dogs and there’s gates and there’s pizza fliers and there’s plants and trees and there’s airplanes. I’m sure you’ve seen this with your two-year-old with this phenomenon of some plane, plane, plane.

ezra klein

Oh, man.

alison gopnik

And then you suddenly realize —

ezra klein

Airplanes.

alison gopnik

Oh, wait a minute.

ezra klein

He’s like a radar.

alison gopnik

I didn’t know that there was an airplane there. But now that you point it out, sure enough there is one there. So I think the other thing is that being with children can give adults a sense of this broader way of being in the world. So I think both of you can appreciate the fact that caring for children is this fundamental foundational important thing that is allowing exploration and learning to take place, rather than thinking that that’s just kind of the scut work and what you really need to do is go out and do explicit teaching. That’s a way of appreciating it. And I think having this kind of empathic relationship to the children who are exploring so much is another.

ezra klein

What should having more respect for the child’s mind change not for how we care for children, but how we care for ourselves or what kinds of things we open ourselves into? If I want to make my mind a little bit more childlike, aside from trying to appreciate the William Blake-like nature of children, are there things of the child’s life that I should be trying to bring into mind?

alison gopnik

Well, we know something about the sort of functions that this child-like brain serves. So one thing is being able to deal with a lot of new information. And if you think about something like traveling to a new place, that’s a good example for adults, where just being someplace that you haven’t been before. Or another example is just trying to learn a skill that you haven’t learned before. Even if you’re not very good at it, someone once said that if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. Just trying to do something that’s different from the things that you’ve done before, just that can itself put you into a state that’s more like the childlike state. And again, there’s tradeoffs because, of course, we get to be good at doing things, and then we want to do the things that we’re good at. But setting up a new place, a new technique, a new relationship to the world, that’s something that seems to help to put you in this childlike state. And to go back to the parenting point, socially putting people in a state where they feel as if they’ve got a lot of resources, and they’re not under immediate pressure to produce a particular outcome, that seems to be something that helps people to be in this — helps even adults to be in this more playful exploratory state.

ezra klein

What do you think about the twin studies that people used to suggest parenting doesn’t really matter? Do you buy that evidence, or do you think it’s off?

alison gopnik

I think it’s off, but I think it’s often in a way that’s actually kind of interesting. So what I’ve argued is that you’d think that what having children does is introduce more variability into the world, right? So it actually introduces more options, more outcomes. Each of the children comes out differently. You get this different combination of genetics and environment and temperament. And each one of them is going to come out to be really different from anything you would expect beforehand, which is something that I think anybody who has had more than one child is very conscious of. But if you think that part of the function of childhood is to introduce that kind of variability into the world and that being a good caregiver has the effect of allowing children to come out in all these different ways, then the basic methodology of the twin studies is to assume that if parenting has an effect, it’s going to have an effect by the child being more like the parent and by, say, the three children that are the children of the same parent being more like each other than, say, the twins who are adopted by different parents. That’s the kind of basic rationale behind the studies. But if you think that what being a parent does is not make children more like themselves and more like you, but actually make them more different from each other and different from you, then when you do a twin study, you’re not going to see that. And, in fact, one of the things that I think people have been quite puzzled about in twin studies is this idea of the non-shared environment. So it turns out that you look at genetics, and that’s responsible for some of the variance. And you look at parental environment, and that’s responsible for some of it. But a lot of it is just all this other stuff, right? And no one quite knows where all that variability is coming from. But if you think that actually having all that variability is not a bad thing, it’s a good thing — it’s what you want — it’s what childhood and parenting is all about — then having that kind of variation that you can’t really explain either by genetics or by what the parents do, that’s exactly what being a parent, being a caregiver is all about, is for. [MUSIC PLAYING]

ezra klein

So you just heard earlier in the conversation they began doing a lot of work around A.I. And I find the direction you’re coming into this from really interesting that there’s this idea we just create A.I., and now there’s increasingly conversation over the possibility that we will need to parent A.I. Tell me a little bit about those collaborations and the angle you’re taking on this.

alison gopnik

So I’ve been collaborating with a whole group of people. It’s been incredibly fun at the Berkeley Artificial Intelligence Research Group. And what we’ve been trying to do is to try and see what would you have to do to design an A.I. system that was as smart as a two-year-old basically, right? That could do the kinds of things that two-year-olds can do. And it’s kind of striking that the very best state of the art systems that we have that are great at playing Go and playing chess and maybe even driving in some circumstances, are terrible at doing the kinds of things that every two-year-old can do. And the idea is maybe we could look at some of the things that the two-year-olds do when they’re learning and see if that makes a difference to what the A.I.’s are doing when they’re learning. So one way that I think about it sometimes is it’s sort of like if you look at the current models for A.I., it’s like we’re giving these A.I.’s hyper helicopter tiger moms. There’s a programmer who’s hovering over the A.I. and saying, oh, yeah, yeah, you got that one right. That one’s a cat. That one’s a dog. That one’s another cat. That one’s another dog. Or you have the A.I. that’s saying, oh, good, your Go score just went up, so do what you’re doing there. But nope, now you lost that game, so figure out something else to do. And as you might expect, what you end up with is A.I. systems that are very, very good at doing the things that they were trained to do and not very good at all at doing something different. So they can play chess, but if you turn to a child and said, OK, we’re just going to change the rules now so that instead of the knight moving this way, it moves another way, they’d be able to figure out how to adopt what they’re doing. And it’s much harder for A.I. systems to do that. Now, one of the big problems that we have in A.I. is what’s come to be called the alignment problem, is how can you get the A.I. values to be aligned with the values of humans? So the famous example of this is the paperclip apocalypse, where you try to train the robot to make paper clips. And it just goes around and turns everything in the world, including all the humans and all the houses and everything else, into paper clips. If you’ve got this kind of strategy of, here’s the goal, try to accomplish the goal as best as you possibly can, then it’s really kind of worrying about what the goal is, what the values are that you’re giving these A.I. systems. And one idea people have had is, well, are there ways that we can make sure that those values are human values? But of course, one of the things that’s so fascinating about humans is we keep changing our objective functions. What counted as being the good thing, the value 10 years ago might be really different from the thing that we think is important or valuable now. We keep discovering that the things that we thought were the right things to do are not the right things to do. And we change what we do as a result. And it seems as if parents are playing a really deep role in that ability. So if you think about what it’s like to be a caregiver, it involves passing on your values. That’s a really deep part of it. But it also involves allowing the next generation to take those values, look at them in the context of the environment they find themselves in now, reshape them, rethink them, do all the things that we were mentioning that teenagers do — consider different kinds of alternatives. And it’s having a previous generation that’s willing to do both those things. It’s willing to both pass on tradition and tolerate, in fact, even encourage, change, that’s willing to say, here’s my values. But your job is to figure out your own values. That’s what lets humans keep altering their values and goals, and most of the time, for good. So the question is, if we really wanted to have A.I.’s that were really autonomous — and maybe we don’t want to have A.I.’s that are really autonomous. But if we wanted to have A.I.’s that had those kinds of capacities, they’d need to have grandmoms. They’d need to have someone who would tell them, here’s what our human values are, and here’s enough possibilities so that you could decide what your values are and then hope that those values actually turn out to be the right ones.

ezra klein

Something that strikes me about this conversation is exactly what you are touching on, this idea that you can have one objective function. The A.I. will have one goal, and that will never change. You look at any kid, right? And I think it’s called social reference learning. I mean, they’re constantly doing something, and then they look back at their parents to see if their parent is smiling or frowning. Then they do something else and they look back. And this constant touching back, I don’t think I appreciated what a big part of development it was until I was a parent. And I just saw how constant it is, just all day, doing something, touching back, doing something, touching back, like 100 times in an hour. And it seems like that would be one way to work through that alignment problem, to just assume that the learning is going to be social. It’s not just going to be a goal function, it’s going to be a conversation.

alison gopnik

A.I. people love acronyms, it turns out. So the acronym we have for our project is MESS, which stands for Model-Building Exploratory Social Learning Systems. So one piece that we think is really important is this exploration, this ability to go out and find out things about the world, do experiments, be curious. One of the things that we’re doing right now is using some of these kind of video game environments to put A.I. agents and children literally in the same environment. So the A.I. is trying to work through a maze in unity, and the kids are working through the maze in unity. And we can compare what it is that the kids and the A.I.’s do in that same environment. So one thing is to get them to explore, but another thing is to get them to do this kind of social learning. So look at a person who’s next to you and figure out what it is that they’re doing. And in robotics, for example, there’s a lot of attempts to use this kind of imitative learning to train robots. But here’s the catch, and the catch is that innovation-imitation trade-off that I mentioned. And in empirical work that we’ve done, we’ve shown that when you look at kids imitating, it’s really fascinating because even three-year-olds will imitate the details of what someone else is doing, but they’ll integrate, OK, I saw you do this. I saw this other person do something a little different. I have some information about how this machine works, for example, myself. And the children will put all those together to design the next thing that would be the right thing to do. So they’re constantly social referencing. They imitate literally from the moment that they’re born. They’re imitating us. They’re paying attention to us. They’re seeing what we do. But then they’re taking that information and integrating it with all the other information they have, say, from their own exploration and putting that together to try to design a new way of being, to try and do something that’s different from all the things that anyone has done before.

ezra klein

So the meta message of this conversation of what I took from your book is that learning a lot about a child’s brain actually throws a totally different light on the adult brain. As you’ve been learning so much about the effort to create A.I., has it made you think about the human brain differently?

alison gopnik

Well, I have to say actually being involved in the A.I. project, in many ways, makes the differences more salient than the similarities. Because over and over again, something that is so simple, say, for young children that we just take it for granted, like the fact that when you go into a new maze, you explore it, that turns out to be really hard to figure out how to do with an A.I. system. Or to take the example about the robot imitators, this is a really lovely project that we’re working on with some people from Google Brain. They thought, OK, well, a good way to get a robot to learn how to do things is to imitate what a human is doing. So what they did was have humans who were, say, manipulating a bunch of — putting things on a desk in a virtual environment. And the robot is sitting there and watching what the human does when they take up the pen and put it in the drawer in the virtual environment. And it turned out that the problem was if you train the robot that way, then they learn how to do exactly the same thing that the human did. But as I say — and this is always sort of amazing to me — you put the pen 5 centimeters to one side, and now they have no idea what to do. But it turns out that if instead of that, what you do is you have the human just play with the things on the desk. You tell the human, I just want you to do stuff with the things that are here. Just play with them. Just do the things that you think are interesting or fun. And then you use that to train the robots. The robots are much more resilient. So part of it kind of goes in circles. So it’s also for the children imitating the more playful things that the adults are doing, or at least, for robots, that’s helping the robots to be more effective. I think anyone who’s worked with human brains and then goes to try to do A.I., the gulf is really pretty striking. And the difference between just the things that we take for granted that, say, children are doing and the things that even the very best, most impressive A.I. systems can do is really striking. Now here’s a specific thing that I’m puzzled about that I think we’ve learned from looking at the A.I. example. In A.I., you sort of have a choice often between just doing the thing that’s the obvious thing that you’ve been trained to do or just doing something that’s kind of random and noisy. Those are sort of the options. The amazing thing about kids is that they do things that are unexpected. They’re not just doing the obvious thing, but they’re not just behaving completely randomly. And I think it’s a really interesting question about how do you search through a space of possibilities, for example, where you’re searching and looking around widely enough so that you can get to something that’s genuinely new, but you aren’t just doing something that’s completely random and noisy. I’ve been thinking about the old program, “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” if you just think about the things that kids say, collect them. A lovely example that one of my computer science postdocs gave the other day was that her three-year-old was walking on the campus and saw the Campanile at Berkeley. So the Campanile is the big clock tower at Berkeley. And he looked up at the clock tower, and he said, there’s a clock at the top there. There’s a clock way, way up high at the top of that tower. And then he said, I guess they want to make sure that the children and the students don’t break the clock. So they put it really, really high up.

ezra klein

It’s very funny.

alison gopnik

And that’s exactly the example of the sort of things that children do. It’s not something he’s ever heard anybody else say. It kind of makes sense. It’s not random. But of course, it’s not something that any grown-up would say. In a sense, it’s a really creative solution. And I think that for A.I., the challenge is, how could we get a system that’s capable of doing something that’s really new, which is what you want if you want robustness and resilience, and isn’t just random, but is new, but appropriately new.

ezra klein

I always wonder if the A.I., two-year-old, three-year-old comparisons are just a category error there, in the sense that you might say a small bat can do something that no children can do, which is it can fly. GPT 3, the open A.I. program, can do something that no two-year-old can do effortlessly, which is mimic the text of a certain kind of author. Is it just going to be the case that there are certain collaborations of our physical forms and molecular structures and so on that give our intelligence different categories? I always wonder if there’s almost a kind of comfort being taken at how hard it is to do two-year-old style things. And meanwhile, I don’t want to put too much weight on it’s beating everybody at Go, but that what it does seem plausible it could do in 10 years will be quite remarkable. Now, again, that’s different than the conscious agent, right, that has to make its way through the world on its own. I’m curious how much weight you put on the idea that that might just be the wrong comparison.

alison gopnik

This is the old point about asking whether an A.I. can think is like asking whether a submarine can swim, right? It feels like it’s just a category. It’s just a category error. And of course, as I say, we have two-year-olds around a lot, so we don’t really need any more two-year-olds. We should be designing these systems so they’re complementary to our intelligence, rather than somehow being a reproduction of our intelligence. But on the other hand, there are very — I mean, again, just take something really simple. Like, it would be really good to have robots that could pick things up and put them in boxes, right? That doesn’t seem like such a highfalutin skill to be able to have. And that could pick things up and put them in boxes and now when you gave it a screw that looked a little different from the previous screw and a box that looked a little different from the previous box, that they could figure out, oh, yeah, no, that one’s a screw, and it goes in the screw box, not the other box. And it turns out that even to do just these really, really simple things that we would really like to have artificial systems do, it’s really hard. And those are things that two-year-olds do really well. And we can think about what is it. On the other hand, the two-year-olds don’t get bored knowing how to put things in boxes. So what is it that they’ve got, what mechanisms do they have that could help us with some of these kinds of problems? And another example that we’ve been working on a lot with the Bay Area group is just vision. So just look at a screen with a lot of pixels, and make sense out of it. And as you probably know if you look at something like ImageNet, you can show, say, a deep learning system a whole lot of pictures of cats and dogs on the web, and eventually you’ll get it so that it can, most of the time, say this is the cat, and this is the dog. But then you can give it something that is just obviously not a cat or a dog, and they’ll make a mistake. And they won’t be able to generalize, even to say a dog on a video that’s actually moving. So even if you take something as simple as that you would like to have your systems actually — you’d like to have the computer in your car actually be able to identify this is a pedestrian or a car, it turns out that even those simple things involve abilities that we see in very young children that are actually quite hard to program into a computer. Some of the things that we’re looking at, for instance, is with children, when they’re learning to identify objects in the world, one thing they do is they pick them up and then they move around. Look at them from different angles, look at them from the top, look at them from the bottom, look at your hands this way, look at your hands that way. Walk around to the other side, pick things up and get into everything and make a terrible mess because you’re picking them up and throwing them around. But it turns out that may be just the kind of thing that you need to do, not to do anything fancy, just to have vision, just to be able to see the objects in the way that adults see the objects.

ezra klein

I think it’s a good place to come to a close. So, let me ask you a variation on what’s our final question. What are three children’s books you love and would recommend to the audience?

alison gopnik

Yeah, so I was thinking a lot about this, and I actually had converged on two children’s books. And then yesterday, I went to see my grandchildren for the first time in a year, my beloved grandchildren. And I was really pleased because my intuitions about the best books were completely confirmed by this great reunion with the grandchildren. So my five-year-old grandson, who hasn’t been in our house for a year, first said, I love you, grandmom, and then said, you know, grandmom, do you still have that book that you have at your house with the little boy who has this white suit, and he goes to the island with the monsters on it, and then he comes back again? And I said, you mean “Where the Wild Things Are”? And he said, that’s it, that’s the one with the wild things with the monsters. Do you still have that book? Could we read that book at your house? So I figure that’s a pretty serious endorsement when a five-year-old remembers something from a year ago. So that’s the first one, especially for the younger children. All of the Maurice Sendak books, but especially “Where the Wild Things Are” is a fantastic, wonderful book. And then for older children, that same day, my nine-year-old, who is very into the Marvel universe and superheroes, said, could we read a chapter from Mary Poppins, which is, again, something that grandmom reads. And we had a marvelous time reading Mary Poppins. And he said, the book is so much better than the movie. And he was absolutely right. And the reason is that when you actually read the Mary Poppins books, especially the later ones, like “Mary Poppins in the Park” and “Mary Poppins Opens the Door,” Mary Poppins is a much stranger, weirder, darker figure than Julie Andrews is. So if you’ve seen the movie, you have no idea what Mary Poppins is about. Essentially what Mary Poppins is about is this very strange, surreal set of adventures that the children are having with this figure, who, as I said to Augie, is much more like Iron Man or Batman or Doctor Strange than Julie Andrews, right? Who’s this powerful and mysterious, sometimes dark, but ultimately good, creature in your experience. So I keep thinking, oh, yeah, now what we really need to do is add Mary Poppins to the Marvel universe, and that would be a much better version. And let me give you a third book, which is much more obscure. There’s a book called “The Children of Green Knowe,” K-N-O-W-E. I like this because it’s a book about a grandmother and her grandson. And he comes to visit her in this strange, old house in the Cambridge countryside. And gradually, it gets to be clear that there are ghosts of the history of this house. And what I like about all three of these books, in their different ways, is that I think they capture this thing that’s so distinctive about childhood, the fact that on the one hand, you’re in this safe place. So with the Wild Things, he’s in his room, where mom is, where supper is going to be. And all the time, sitting in that room, he also adventures out in this boat to these strange places where wild things are, including he himself as a wild thing. And the same thing is true with Mary Poppins. So there are these children who are just leading this very ordinary British middle class life in the ’30s. And they’re going to the greengrocer and the fishmonger. And yet, there’s all this strangeness, this weirdness, the surreal things just about those everyday experiences. And the same way with “The Children of Green Knowe.” You’re going to visit your grandmother in her house in the country. And then it turns out that that house is full of spirits and ghosts and traditions and things that you’ve learned from the past. All three of those books really capture what’s special about childhood. It’s that combination of a small, safe world, and it’s actually having that small, safe world that lets you explore much wilder, crazier stranger set of worlds than any grown-up ever gets to.

ezra klein

Alison Gopnik, thank you very much.

alison gopnik

Thank you, Ezra. [MUSIC PLAYING]

ezra klein

Thank you to Alison Gopnik for being here. I’m going to keep it up with these little occasional recommendations after the show. I’m a writing nerd. I mean, obviously, I’m a writer, but I like writing software. When I went to Vox Media, partially I did that because of their great CMS or publishing software Chorus. And I’m always looking for really good clean composition apps. I find Word and Pages and Google Docs to be just horrible to write in. And having a good space to write in, it actually helps me think. But I found something recently that I like. And I’m not getting paid to promote them or anything, I just like it. It’s called Calmly Writer. You could just find it at calmywriter.com. And it’s the cleanest writing interface, simplest of these programs I found. So if you’re looking for a real lightweight, easy place to do some writing, Calmly Writer. But I’d be interested to hear what you all like because I’ve become a little bit of a nerd about these apps. That’s it for the show. Thank you for listening. As always, if you want to help the show out, leave us a review wherever you are listening to it now. Or send this episode to a friend, a family member, somebody you want to talk about it with. It really does help the show grow. “The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It is produced by Roge Karma and Jeff Geld; fact-checked by Michelle Harris; original music by Isaac Jones; and mixing by Jeff Geld. [MUSIC PLAYING]

Why Adults Lose the ‘Beginner’s Mind’

The psychologist Alison Gopnik and Ezra Klein discuss what children can teach adults about learning, consciousness and play.

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transcript

Why Adults Lose the ‘Beginner’s Mind’

The psychologist Alison Gopnik and Ezra Klein discuss what children can teach adults about learning, consciousness and play.

Friday, April 16th, 2021

[MUSIC PLAYING]

ezra klein

I’m Ezra Klein, and this is “The Ezra Klein Show.”

It probably won’t surprise you that I’m one of those parents who reads a lot of books about parenting. And they’re mostly bad, particularly the books for dads. So many of those books have this weird, “dude, you’re going to be a dad, bro,” tone. It’s a terrible literature. But one of the great finds for me in the parenting book world has been Alison Gopnik’s work. Gopnik runs the Cognitive Development and Learning Lab at UC Berkeley. She’s in both the psychology and philosophy departments there. She’s part of the A.I. working group there. And one of the things about her work, the thing that sets it apart for me is she uses children and studies children to understand all of us. She takes childhood seriously as a phase in human development. And why not, right? You’re watching consciousness come online in real-time. You’re watching language and culture and social rules being absorbed and learned and changed, importantly changed. Her books haven’t just changed how I look at my son. They’ve really changed how I look at myself, how I look at all of us. And one of them in particular that I read recently is “The Philosophical Baby,” which blew my mind a little bit. Because what she does in that book is show through a lot of experiments and research that there is a way in which children are a lot smarter than adults — I think that’s the right way to say that — a way in which their strangest, silliest seeming behaviors are actually remarkable. This is her core argument. Children are tuned to learn. And when you tune a mind to learn, it actually used to work really differently than a mind that already knows a lot. The efficiency that our minds develop as we get older, it has amazing advantages. Unlike my son — and I don’t want to brag here — unlike my son, I can make it from his bedroom to the kitchen without any stops along the way. I can just get right there. But also, unlike my son, I take so much for granted. I have so much trouble actually taking the world on its own terms and trying to derive how it works. I’ve learned so much that I’ve lost the ability to unlearn what I know. And that means I’ve also sometimes lost the ability to question things correctly. So this isn’t just a conversation about kids or for parents. It’s a conversation about humans for humans. We spend so much time and effort trying to teach kids to think like adults. A message of Gopnik’s work and one I take seriously is we need to spend more time and effort as adults trying to think more like kids. As always, my email is ezrakleinshow@nytimes.com, if you’ve got something to teach me. But here is Alison Gopnik.

You write that children aren’t just defective adults, primitive grown-ups, who are gradually attaining our perfection and complexity. Instead, children and adults are different forms of Homo sapiens. How so?

alison gopnik

Well, from an evolutionary biology point of view, one of the things that’s really striking is this relationship between what biologists call life history, how our developmental sequence unfolds, and things like how intelligent we are. And there’s a very, very general relationship between how long a period of childhood an organism has and roughly how smart they are, how big their brains are, how flexible they are. And an idea that I think a lot of us have now is that part of that is because you’ve really got these two different creatures. So you’ve got one creature that’s really designed to explore, to learn, to change. That’s the child form. And then you’ve got this other creature that’s really designed to exploit, as computer scientists say, to go out, find resources, make plans, make things happen, including finding resources for that wild, crazy explorer that you have in your nursery. And the idea is that those two different developmental and evolutionary agendas come with really different kinds of cognition, really different kinds of computation, really different kinds of brains, and I think with very different kinds of experiences of the world. So, the very way that you experience the world, your consciousness, is really different if your agenda is going to be, get the next thing done, figure out how to do it, figure out what the next thing to do after that is, versus extract as much information as I possibly can from the world. And I think adults have the capacity to some extent to go back and forth between those two states. But I think that babies and young children are in that explore state all the time. That’s really what they’re designed to do. They’re like a different kind of creature than the adult. You sort of might think about, well, are there other ways that evolution could have solved this explore, exploit trade-off, this problem about how do you get a creature that can do things, but can also learn things really widely? And Peter Godfrey-Smith’s wonderful book — I’ve just been reading “Metazoa” — talks about the octopus. And the octopus is very puzzling because the octos don’t have a long childhood. And yet, they seem to be really smart, and they have these big brains with lots of neurons. But it also turns out that octos actually have divided brains. So they have one brain in the center in their head, and then they have another brain or maybe eight brains in each one of the tentacles. And if you actually watch what the octos do, the tentacles are out there doing the explorer thing. They’re getting information, figuring out what the water is like. And then the central head brain is doing things like saying, OK, now it’s time to squirt. Now it’s time to get food. So, my thought is that we could imagine an alternate evolutionary path by which each of us was both a child and an adult. So imagine if your arms were like your two-year-old, right? So that you are always trying to get them to stop exploring because you had to get lunch. I suspect that may be what the consciousness of an octo is like. Now, we’re obviously not like that. But I think even human adults, that might be an interesting kind of model for some of what it’s like to be a human adult in particular. So I think we have children who really have this explorer brain and this explorer experience. They’re kind of like our tentacles. They’re going out and figuring things out in the world. And then we have adults who are really the head brain, the one that’s actually going out and doing things. But I think even as adults, we can have this kind of split brain phenomenon, where a bit of our experience is like being a child again and vice versa.

ezra klein

I feel like that’s an answer that’s going to launch 100 science fiction short stories, as people imagine the stories you’re describing here. One of the things I really like about this is that it pushes towards a real respect for the child’s brain. If one defined intelligence as the ability to learn and to learn fast and to learn flexibly, a two-year-old is a lot more intelligent right now than I am. I have more knowledge, and I have more experience, and I have more ability to exploit existing learnings. But they have more capacity and flexibility and changeability. Is that right? And to the extent it is, what gives it that flexibility? What are the trade-offs to have that flexibility?

alison gopnik

Yeah, so I think a really deep idea that comes out of computer science originally — in fact, came out of the original design of the computer — is this idea of the explore or exploit trade-off is what they call it. So if you’re thinking about intelligence, there’s a real genuine tradeoff between your ability to explore as many options as you can versus your ability to quickly, efficiently commit to a particular option and implement it. And it turns out that even if you just do the math, it’s really impossible to get a system that optimizes both of those things at the same time, that is exploring and exploiting simultaneously because they’re really deeply in tension with one another. And the way that computer scientists have figured out to try to solve this problem very characteristically is give the system a chance to explore first, give it a chance to figure out all the information, and then once it’s got the information, it can go out and it can exploit later on. So, explore first and then exploit. And I think that evolution has used that strategy in designing human development in particular because we have this really long childhood. But I think you can see the same thing in non-human animals and not just in mammals, but in birds and maybe even in insects. So you see this really deep tension, which I think we’re facing all the time between how much are we considering different possibilities and how much are we acting efficiently and swiftly. There’s, again, an intrinsic tension between how much you know and how open you are to new possibilities. So, again, just sort of something you can formally show is that if I know a lot, then I should really rely on that knowledge. And I should, to some extent, discount something new that somebody tells me. Whereas if I don’t know a lot, then almost by definition, I have to be open to more knowledge. But I think it’s more than just the fact that you have what the Zen masters call beginner’s mind, right, that you start out not knowing as much. I think we can actually point to things like the physical makeup of a child’s brain and an adult brain that makes them differently adapted for exploring and exploiting.

ezra klein

You have some work on this. What does look different in the two brains?

alison gopnik

So there’s two big areas of development that seem to be different. So one of them is that the young brain seems to start out making many, many new connections. So what you’ll see when you look at a chart of synaptic development, for instance, is, you’ve got this early period when many, many, many new connections are being made. And then you’ve got this later period where the connections that are used a lot that are working well, they get maintained, they get strengthened, they get to be more efficient. And then the ones that aren’t are pruned, as neuroscientists say. They kind of disappear. The consequence of that is that you have this young brain that has a lot of what neuroscientists call plasticity. It can change really easily, essentially. But it’s not very good at putting on its jacket and getting into preschool in the morning. It’s not very good at doing anything that is the sort of things that you need to act well. And it’s especially not good at things like inhibition. It’s especially not good at doing things like having one part of the brain restrict what another part of the brain is going to do. So that’s one change that’s changed from this lots of local connections, lots of plasticity, to something that’s got longer and more efficient connections, but is less changeable. The other change that’s particularly relevant to humans is that we have the prefrontal cortex. That’s the part of our brain that’s sort of the executive office of the brain, where long-term planning, inhibition, focus, all those things seem to be done by this part of the brain. And what happens with development is that that part of the brain, that executive part gets more and more control over the rest of the brain as you get older. So that the ability to have an impulse in the back of your brain and the front of your brain can come in and shut that out. Or there’s a distraction in the back of your brain, something that is in your visual field that isn’t relevant to what you do. And the frontal part can literally shut down that other part of your brain. But that process takes a long time. So when you start out, you’ve got much less of that kind of frontal control, more of, I guess, in some ways, almost more like the octos where parts of your brain are doing their own thing. And then as you get older, you get more and more of that control.

ezra klein

And is that the dynamic that leads to this spotlight consciousness, lantern consciousness distinction? And can you talk about that? Because I know I think about it all the time.

alison gopnik

So those are two really, really different kinds of consciousness. One kind of consciousness — this is an old metaphor — is to think about attention as being like a spotlight. It comes in. It illuminates the thing that you want to find out about. And you don’t see the things that are on the other side. And I think that in other states of consciousness, especially the state of consciousness you’re in when you’re a child — but I think there are things that adults do that put them in that state as well — you have something that’s much more like a lantern. So you’re actually taking in information from everything that’s going on around you. And the most important thing is, is this going to teach me something? Is this new? Is this interesting? Is this curious, rather than focusing your attention and consciousness on just one thing at a time. So, a lot of the theories of consciousness start out from what I think of as professorial consciousness. So, surprise, surprise, when philosophers and psychologists are thinking about consciousness, they think about the kind of consciousness that philosophers and psychologists have a lot of the time. And that sort of consciousness is, say, you’re sitting in your chair. You have the paper to write. You’re desperately trying to focus on the specific things that you said that you would do. And then you kind of get distracted, and your mind wanders a bit. And you start ruminating about other things. And that kind of goal-directed, focused, consciousness, which goes very much with the sense of a self — so there’s a me that’s trying to finish up the paper or answer the emails or do all the things that I have to do — that’s really been the focus of a lot of theories of consciousness, is if that kind of consciousness was what consciousness was all about. And we even can show neurologically that, for instance, what happens in that state is when I attend to something, when I pay attention to something, what happens is the thing that I’m paying attention to becomes much brighter and more vivid. And I actually shut down all the other things that I’m not paying attention to. You can even see that in the brain. So the part of your brain that’s relevant to what you’re attending to becomes more active, more plastic, more changeable. And the other nearby parts get shut down, again, inhibited. So there’s a really nice picture about what happens in professorial consciousness. That’s kind of how consciousness works. And again, maybe not surprisingly, people have acted as if that kind of consciousness is what consciousness is really all about. That’s really what you want when you’re conscious. And what I would argue is there’s all these other kinds of states of experience — and not just me, other philosophers as well. There’s all these other kinds of ways of being sentient, ways of being aware, ways of being conscious, that are not like that at all. So, one interesting example that there’s actually some studies of is to think about when you’re completely absorbed in a really interesting movie. You’re kind of gone. Your self is gone. You’re not deciding what to pay attention to in the movie. The movie is just completely captivating. In the state of that focused, goal-directed consciousness, those frontal areas are very involved and very engaged. And there seem to actually be two pathways. One of them is the one that’s sort of here’s the goal-directed pathway, what they sometimes call the task dependent activity. And then the other one is what’s sometimes called the default mode. And that’s the sort of ruminating or thinking about the other things that you have to do, being in your head, as we say, as the other mode. When you look at someone who’s in the scanner, who’s really absorbed in a great movie, neither of those parts are really active. And instead, other parts of the brain are more active. And that brain, the brain of the person who’s absorbed in the movie, looks more like the child’s brain.

ezra klein

But now, whether you’re a philosopher or not, or an academic or a journalist or just somebody who spends a lot of time on their computer or a student, we now have a modernity that is constantly training something more like spotlight consciousness, probably more so than would have been true at other times in human history. And something that I took from your book is that there is the ability to train, or at least, experience different kinds of consciousness through different kinds of other experiences like travel, or you talk about meditation. But one of the thoughts it triggered for me, as somebody who’s been pretty involved in meditation for the last decade or so, there’s a real dominance of the vipassana style concentration meditation, single point meditations. Just watch the breath. Just think about the breath right at the edge of the nostril. And without taking anything away from that tradition, it made me wonder if one reason that has become so dominant in America, and particularly in Northern California, is because it’s a very good match for the kind of concentration in consciousness that our economy is consciously trying to develop in us, this get things done, be very focused, don’t ruminate too much, like a neoliberal form of consciousness. Do you think there’s something to that?

alison gopnik

I think that there’s a paradox about, for example, going out and saying, I am going to meditate and stop trying to get goals. Because I have this goal, which is I want to be a much better meditator. And I have done a bit of meditation and workshops, and it’s always a little amusing when you see the young men who are going to prove that they’re better at meditating. They can sit for longer than anybody else can. But I think it’s important to say when you’re thinking about things like meditation, or you’re thinking about alternative states of consciousness in general, that there’s lots of different alternative states of consciousness. So it isn’t just a choice between lantern and spotlight. There’s lots of different ways that we have of being in the world, lots of different kinds of experiences that we have. And I suspect that they each come with a separate, a different kind of focus, a different way of being. And in meditation, you can see the contrast between some of these more pointed kinds of meditation versus what’s sometimes called open awareness meditation. So open awareness meditation is when you’re not just focused on one thing, when you try to be open to everything that’s going on around you. And the phenomenology of that is very much like this kind of lantern, that everything at once is illuminated. And I think that kind of open-ended meditation and the kind of consciousness that it goes with is actually a lot like things that, for example, the romantic poets, like Wordsworth, talked about. So there’s this lovely concept that I like of the numinous. And sometimes it’s connected with spirituality, but I don’t think it has to be. It’s this idea that you’re going through the world. And often, quite suddenly, if you’re an adult, everything in the world seems to be significant and important and important and significant in a way that makes you insignificant by comparison. My colleague, Dacher Keltner, has studied awe. And awe is kind of an example of this. But the numinous sort of turns up the dial on awe. And part of the numinous is it doesn’t just have to be about something that’s bigger than you, like a mountain. It could just be your garden or the street that you’re walking on. And suddenly that becomes illuminated. Everything around you becomes illuminated. And you yourself sort of disappear. And I think that’s kind of the best analogy I can think of for the state that the children are in. And it’s worth saying, it’s not like the children are always in that state. So the children, perhaps because they spend so much time in that state, also can be fussy and cranky and desperately wanting their next meal or desperately wanting comfort. They’re not always in that kind of broad state. But I think they spend much more of their time in that state. That’s more like their natural state than adults are.

ezra klein

Do you think for kids that play or imaginative play should be understood as a form of consciousness, a state?

alison gopnik

Yeah, that’s a really good question. So there’s really a kind of coherent whole about what childhood is all about. So if you think from this broad evolutionary perspective about these creatures that are designed to explore, I think there’s a whole lot of other things that go with that. So one thing that goes with that is this broad-based consciousness. But another thing that goes with it is the activity of play. And if you think about play, the definition of play is that it’s the thing that you do when you’re not working. Now it’s not a form of experience and consciousness so much, but it’s a form of activity. It’s a form of actually doing things that, nevertheless, have this characteristic of not being immediately directed to a goal. If you look across animals, for example, very characteristically, it’s the young animals that are playing across an incredibly wide range of different kinds of animals. Sometimes if they’re mice, they’re play fighting. And if they’re crows, they’re playing with twigs and figuring out how they can use the twigs. So, what goes on in play is different. But it’s really fascinating that it’s the young animals who are playing. And all of the theories that we have about play are play’s another form of this kind of exploration. So it’s another way of having this explore state of being in the world. Now it’s not so much about you’re visually taking in all the information around you the way that you do when you’re exploring. Now it’s more like you’re actually doing things on the world to try to explore the space of possibilities. Another thing that people point out about play is play is fun. There’s a certain kind of happiness and joy that goes with being in that state when you’re just playing. And again, it’s not the state that kids are in all the time. But it’s the state that they’re in a lot of the time and a state that they’re in when they’re actually engaged in play. One of the things that’s really fascinating that’s coming out in A.I. now — and I’ve been spending a lot of time collaborating with people in computer science at Berkeley who are trying to design better artificial intelligence systems — the current systems that we have, I mean, the languages they’re designed to optimize, they’re really exploit systems. What you do with these systems is say, here’s what your goal is. You go out and maximize that goal. And it turns out that if you have a system like that, it will be very good at doing the things that it was optimized for, but not very good at being resilient, not very good at changing when things are different, right? I’ve been really struck working with people in robotics, for example. When people say, well, the robots have trouble generalizing, they don’t mean they have trouble generalizing from driving a Tesla to driving a Lexus. They mean they have trouble going from putting the block down at this point to putting the block down a centimeter to the left, right? I mean, they really have trouble generalizing even when they’re very good. And it turns out that if you get these systems to have a period of play, where they can just be generating things in a wilder way or get them to train on a human playing, they end up being much more resilient. They’re much better at generalizing, which is, of course, the great thing that children are also really good at.

ezra klein

I was thinking about how a moment ago, you said, play is what you do when you’re not working. And I was thinking, it’s absolutely not what I do when I’m not working. I’m constantly like you, sitting here, being like, don’t work. And that’s not playing. And in fact, I think I’ve lost a lot of my capacity for play. I’ve trained myself to be productive so often that it’s sometimes hard to put it down. And it takes actual, dedicated effort to not do things that feel like work to me. What’s lost in that? Because I think there’s cultural pressure to not play, but I think that your research and some of the others suggest maybe we’ve made a terrible mistake on that by not honoring play more.

alison gopnik

Yeah, I think there’s a lot of evidence for that. And it’s interesting that, as I say, the hard-headed engineers, who are trying to do things like design robots, are increasingly realizing that play is something that’s going to actually be able to get you systems that do better in going through the world. Part of the problem — and this is a general explore or exploit problem. Part of the problem with play is if you think about it in terms of what its long-term benefits are going to be, then it isn’t play anymore. And if you sort of set up any particular goal, if you say, oh, well, if you play more, you’ll be more robust or more resilient. And you say, OK, so now I want to design you to do this particular thing well. Then you’re always going to do better by just optimizing for that particular thing than by playing. So what play is really about is about this ability to change, to be resilient in the face of lots of different environments, in the face of lots of different possibilities. It’s about dealing with something new or unexpected. And it’s interesting that if you look at what might look like a really different literature, look at studies about the effects of preschool on later development in children. So when they first started doing these studies where you looked at the effects of an enriching preschool — and these were play-based preschools, the way preschools still are to some extent and certainly should be and have been in the past. So, basically, you put a child in a rich environment where there’s lots of opportunities for play. And it turned out that if you looked at things like just how well you did on a standardized test, after a couple of years, the effects seem to sort of fade out. And that was an argument against early education. But it turns out that if you look 30 years later, you have these sleeper effects where these children who played are not necessarily getting better grades three years later. But they’re not going to prison. Their health is better. Their salaries are higher. And what that suggests is the things that having a lot of experience with play was letting you do was to be able to deal with unexpected challenges better, rather than that it was allowing you to attain any particular outcome. And it really makes it tricky if you want to do evidence-based policy, which we all want to do. And —

ezra klein

That’s optimistic.

alison gopnik

Well, or what at least some people want to do. Any kind of metric that you said, almost by definition, if it’s the metric, you’re going to do better if you teach to the test. So there’s always this temptation to do that, even though the advantages that play gives you seem to be these advantages of robustness and resilience. So for instance, if you look at rats and you look at the rats who get to do play fighting versus rats who don’t, it’s not that the rats who play can do things that the rats can’t play can, like every specific fighting technique the rats will have. But if you look at their subtlety at their ability to deal with context, at their ability to decide when should I do this versus that, how should I deal with the whole ensemble that I’m in, that’s where play has its great advantages.

ezra klein

Do you play?

alison gopnik

Well, I was going to say, when you were saying that you don’t play, you read science fiction, right? And you watch the Marvel Comics universe movies.

ezra klein

I do, do that.

alison gopnik

And I think for grown-ups, that’s really the equivalent of the kind of — especially the kind of pretend play and imaginative play that you see in children. And those two things are very parallel. There’s even a nice study by Marjorie Taylor who studied a lot of this imaginative play that when you talk to people who are adult writers, for example, they tell you that they remember their imaginary friends from when they were kids. Everybody has imaginary friends. But it’s sort of like they keep them in their Rolodex. They keep in touch with their imaginary friends. And I think for adults, a lot of the function, which has always been kind of mysterious — like, why would reading about something that hasn’t happened help you to understand things that have happened, or why would it be good in general — I think for adults a lot of that kind of activity is the equivalent of play. And I don’t do that as much as I would like to or as much as I did 20 years ago, which makes me think a little about how the society has changed. But I do think that counts as play for adults. And of course, you’ve got the best play thing there could be, which is if you’ve got a two-year-old or a three-year-old or a four-year-old, they kind of force you to be in that state, whether you start out wanting to be or not.

ezra klein

Yeah, there’s definitely something to that. I’ve had to spend a lot more time thinking about pickle trucks now. [MUSIC PLAYING]

One of the arguments you make throughout the book is that children play a population level role, right? We’re talking here about the way a child becomes an adult, how do they learn, how do they play in a way that keeps them from going to jail later. But you sort of say that children are the R&D wing of our species and that as generations turn over, we change in ways and adapt to things in ways that the normal genetic pathway of evolution wouldn’t necessarily predict. And we do it partially through children. Could you talk a bit about that, what this sort of period of plasticity is doing at scale?

alison gopnik

Yeah, so I think that’s a good question. And we don’t really completely know what the answer is. But, again, the sort of baseline is that humans have this really, really long period of immaturity. So we have more different people who are involved and engaged in taking care of children. And all that looks as if it’s very evolutionarily costly. So there’s a question about why would it be. Now, of course, it could just be an epiphenomenon. But it seems to be a really general pattern across so many different species at so many different times. So what kind of function could that serve? Well, if you think about human beings, we’re being faced with unexpected environments all the time. One way you could think about it is, our ecological niche is the unknown unknowns. That’s really what we’re adapted to, are the unknown unknowns. That’s what we’re all about. And of course, once we develop a culture, that just gets to be more true because each generation is going to change its environment in various ways that affect its culture. And that means that now, the next generation is going to have yet another new thing to try to deal with and to understand. So I think more and more, especially in the cultural context, that having a new generation that can look around at everything around it and say, let me try to make sense out of this, or let me understand this and let me think of all the new things that I could do, given this new environment, which is the thing that children, and I think not just infants and babies, but up through adolescence, that children are doing, that could be a real advantage. And then once you’ve done that kind of exploration of the space of possibilities, then as an adult now in that environment, you can decide which of those things you want to have happen.

ezra klein

Does this help explain why revolutionary political ideas are so much more appealing to sort of teens and 20 somethings and then why so much revolutionary political action comes from those age groups, comes from students? It’s partially this ability to exist within the imaginarium and have a little bit more of a porous border between what exists and what could than you have when you’re 50.

alison gopnik

So we actually did some really interesting experiments where we were looking at how these kinds of flexibility develop over the space of development. And one of the things that we discovered was that if you look at your understanding of the physical world, the preschoolers are the most flexible, and then they get less flexible at school age and then less so with adolescence. But if you look at the social world, there’s really this burst of plasticity and flexibility in adolescence. And the neuroscience suggests that, too. So if you look at the social parts of the brain, you see this kind of rebirth of plasticity and flexibility in adolescence. And I think that that’s exactly what you were saying, exactly what that’s for, is that it gives the adolescents a chance to consider new kinds of social possibilities, and to take the information that they got from the people around them and say, OK, given that that’s true, what’s something new that we could do? What’s something different from what we’ve done before? And if you look at the literature about cultural evolution, I think it’s true that culture is one of the really distinctive human capacities. There’s this constant tension between imitation and innovation. So to have a culture, one thing you need to do is to have a generation that comes in and can take advantage of all the other things that the previous generations have learned. But of course, what you also want is for that new generation to be able to modify and tweak and change and alter the things that the previous generation has done. And I think the period of childhood and adolescence in particular gives you a chance to be that kind of cutting edge of change. And empirically, what you see is that very often for things like music or clothing or culture or politics or social change, you see that the adolescents are on the edge, for better or for worse. And again, there’s this kind of tradeoff tension between all us cranky, old people saying, what’s wrong with kids nowadays? Because there’s a reason why the previous generation is doing the things that they’re doing and the sense of, here’s this great range of possibilities that we haven’t considered before.

ezra klein

What does this somewhat deeper understanding of the child’s brain imply for caregivers? What does taking more seriously what these states of consciousness are like say about how you should act as a parent and uncle and aunt, a grandparent?

alison gopnik

Well, I think here’s the wrong message to take, first of all, which I think is often the message that gets taken from this kind of information, especially in our time and our place and among people in our culture. The wrong message is, oh, OK, they’re doing all this learning, so we better start teaching them really, really early. We better make sure that all this learning is going to be shaped in the way that we want it to be shaped. And we better make sure that we’re doing the right things, and we’re buying the right apps, and we’re reading the right books, and we’re doing the right things to shape that kind of learning in the way that we, as adults, think that it should be shaped. And that’s not the right thing. That’s actually working against the very function of this early period of exploration and learning. But I do think something that’s important is that the very mundane investment that we make as caregivers, keeping the kids alive, figuring out what it is that they want or need at any moment, those things that are often very time consuming and require a lot of work, it’s that context of being secure and having resources and not having to worry about the immediate circumstances that you’re in. That context that caregivers provide, that’s absolutely crucial. It’s absolutely essential for that broad-based learning and understanding to happen. So just by doing — just by being a caregiver, just by caring, what you’re doing is providing the context in which this kind of exploration can take place. And we’re pretty well designed to think it’s good to care for children in the first place. But I think especially for sort of self-reflective parents, the fact that part of what you’re doing is allowing that to happen is really important. And then the other thing is that I think being with children in that way is a great way for adults to get a sense of what it would be like to have that broader focus. So, going for a walk with a two-year-old is like going for a walk with William Blake. You go to the corner to get milk, and part of what we can even show from the neuroscience is that as adults, when you do something really often, you become habituated. You do the same thing over and over again. It kind of disappears from your consciousness. You’re not doing it with much experience. And again, that’s a lot of the times, that’s a good thing because there’s other things that we have to do. But if you do the same walk with a two-year-old, you realize, wait a minute. This, three blocks, it’s just amazing. It’s so rich. There’s dogs and there’s gates and there’s pizza fliers and there’s plants and trees and there’s airplanes. I’m sure you’ve seen this with your two-year-old with this phenomenon of some plane, plane, plane.

ezra klein

Oh, man.

alison gopnik

And then you suddenly realize —

ezra klein

Airplanes.

alison gopnik

Oh, wait a minute.

ezra klein

He’s like a radar.

alison gopnik

I didn’t know that there was an airplane there. But now that you point it out, sure enough there is one there. So I think the other thing is that being with children can give adults a sense of this broader way of being in the world. So I think both of you can appreciate the fact that caring for children is this fundamental foundational important thing that is allowing exploration and learning to take place, rather than thinking that that’s just kind of the scut work and what you really need to do is go out and do explicit teaching. That’s a way of appreciating it. And I think having this kind of empathic relationship to the children who are exploring so much is another.

ezra klein

What should having more respect for the child’s mind change not for how we care for children, but how we care for ourselves or what kinds of things we open ourselves into? If I want to make my mind a little bit more childlike, aside from trying to appreciate the William Blake-like nature of children, are there things of the child’s life that I should be trying to bring into mind?

alison gopnik

Well, we know something about the sort of functions that this child-like brain serves. So one thing is being able to deal with a lot of new information. And if you think about something like traveling to a new place, that’s a good example for adults, where just being someplace that you haven’t been before. Or another example is just trying to learn a skill that you haven’t learned before. Even if you’re not very good at it, someone once said that if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. Just trying to do something that’s different from the things that you’ve done before, just that can itself put you into a state that’s more like the childlike state. And again, there’s tradeoffs because, of course, we get to be good at doing things, and then we want to do the things that we’re good at. But setting up a new place, a new technique, a new relationship to the world, that’s something that seems to help to put you in this childlike state. And to go back to the parenting point, socially putting people in a state where they feel as if they’ve got a lot of resources, and they’re not under immediate pressure to produce a particular outcome, that seems to be something that helps people to be in this — helps even adults to be in this more playful exploratory state.

ezra klein

What do you think about the twin studies that people used to suggest parenting doesn’t really matter? Do you buy that evidence, or do you think it’s off?

alison gopnik

I think it’s off, but I think it’s often in a way that’s actually kind of interesting. So what I’ve argued is that you’d think that what having children does is introduce more variability into the world, right? So it actually introduces more options, more outcomes. Each of the children comes out differently. You get this different combination of genetics and environment and temperament. And each one of them is going to come out to be really different from anything you would expect beforehand, which is something that I think anybody who has had more than one child is very conscious of. But if you think that part of the function of childhood is to introduce that kind of variability into the world and that being a good caregiver has the effect of allowing children to come out in all these different ways, then the basic methodology of the twin studies is to assume that if parenting has an effect, it’s going to have an effect by the child being more like the parent and by, say, the three children that are the children of the same parent being more like each other than, say, the twins who are adopted by different parents. That’s the kind of basic rationale behind the studies. But if you think that what being a parent does is not make children more like themselves and more like you, but actually make them more different from each other and different from you, then when you do a twin study, you’re not going to see that. And, in fact, one of the things that I think people have been quite puzzled about in twin studies is this idea of the non-shared environment. So it turns out that you look at genetics, and that’s responsible for some of the variance. And you look at parental environment, and that’s responsible for some of it. But a lot of it is just all this other stuff, right? And no one quite knows where all that variability is coming from. But if you think that actually having all that variability is not a bad thing, it’s a good thing — it’s what you want — it’s what childhood and parenting is all about — then having that kind of variation that you can’t really explain either by genetics or by what the parents do, that’s exactly what being a parent, being a caregiver is all about, is for. [MUSIC PLAYING]

ezra klein

So you just heard earlier in the conversation they began doing a lot of work around A.I. And I find the direction you’re coming into this from really interesting that there’s this idea we just create A.I., and now there’s increasingly conversation over the possibility that we will need to parent A.I. Tell me a little bit about those collaborations and the angle you’re taking on this.

alison gopnik

So I’ve been collaborating with a whole group of people. It’s been incredibly fun at the Berkeley Artificial Intelligence Research Group. And what we’ve been trying to do is to try and see what would you have to do to design an A.I. system that was as smart as a two-year-old basically, right? That could do the kinds of things that two-year-olds can do. And it’s kind of striking that the very best state of the art systems that we have that are great at playing Go and playing chess and maybe even driving in some circumstances, are terrible at doing the kinds of things that every two-year-old can do. And the idea is maybe we could look at some of the things that the two-year-olds do when they’re learning and see if that makes a difference to what the A.I.’s are doing when they’re learning. So one way that I think about it sometimes is it’s sort of like if you look at the current models for A.I., it’s like we’re giving these A.I.’s hyper helicopter tiger moms. There’s a programmer who’s hovering over the A.I. and saying, oh, yeah, yeah, you got that one right. That one’s a cat. That one’s a dog. That one’s another cat. That one’s another dog. Or you have the A.I. that’s saying, oh, good, your Go score just went up, so do what you’re doing there. But nope, now you lost that game, so figure out something else to do. And as you might expect, what you end up with is A.I. systems that are very, very good at doing the things that they were trained to do and not very good at all at doing something different. So they can play chess, but if you turn to a child and said, OK, we’re just going to change the rules now so that instead of the knight moving this way, it moves another way, they’d be able to figure out how to adopt what they’re doing. And it’s much harder for A.I. systems to do that. Now, one of the big problems that we have in A.I. is what’s come to be called the alignment problem, is how can you get the A.I. values to be aligned with the values of humans? So the famous example of this is the paperclip apocalypse, where you try to train the robot to make paper clips. And it just goes around and turns everything in the world, including all the humans and all the houses and everything else, into paper clips. If you’ve got this kind of strategy of, here’s the goal, try to accomplish the goal as best as you possibly can, then it’s really kind of worrying about what the goal is, what the values are that you’re giving these A.I. systems. And one idea people have had is, well, are there ways that we can make sure that those values are human values? But of course, one of the things that’s so fascinating about humans is we keep changing our objective functions. What counted as being the good thing, the value 10 years ago might be really different from the thing that we think is important or valuable now. We keep discovering that the things that we thought were the right things to do are not the right things to do. And we change what we do as a result. And it seems as if parents are playing a really deep role in that ability. So if you think about what it’s like to be a caregiver, it involves passing on your values. That’s a really deep part of it. But it also involves allowing the next generation to take those values, look at them in the context of the environment they find themselves in now, reshape them, rethink them, do all the things that we were mentioning that teenagers do — consider different kinds of alternatives. And it’s having a previous generation that’s willing to do both those things. It’s willing to both pass on tradition and tolerate, in fact, even encourage, change, that’s willing to say, here’s my values. But your job is to figure out your own values. That’s what lets humans keep altering their values and goals, and most of the time, for good. So the question is, if we really wanted to have A.I.’s that were really autonomous — and maybe we don’t want to have A.I.’s that are really autonomous. But if we wanted to have A.I.’s that had those kinds of capacities, they’d need to have grandmoms. They’d need to have someone who would tell them, here’s what our human values are, and here’s enough possibilities so that you could decide what your values are and then hope that those values actually turn out to be the right ones.

ezra klein

Something that strikes me about this conversation is exactly what you are touching on, this idea that you can have one objective function. The A.I. will have one goal, and that will never change. You look at any kid, right? And I think it’s called social reference learning. I mean, they’re constantly doing something, and then they look back at their parents to see if their parent is smiling or frowning. Then they do something else and they look back. And this constant touching back, I don’t think I appreciated what a big part of development it was until I was a parent. And I just saw how constant it is, just all day, doing something, touching back, doing something, touching back, like 100 times in an hour. And it seems like that would be one way to work through that alignment problem, to just assume that the learning is going to be social. It’s not just going to be a goal function, it’s going to be a conversation.

alison gopnik

A.I. people love acronyms, it turns out. So the acronym we have for our project is MESS, which stands for Model-Building Exploratory Social Learning Systems. So one piece that we think is really important is this exploration, this ability to go out and find out things about the world, do experiments, be curious. One of the things that we’re doing right now is using some of these kind of video game environments to put A.I. agents and children literally in the same environment. So the A.I. is trying to work through a maze in unity, and the kids are working through the maze in unity. And we can compare what it is that the kids and the A.I.’s do in that same environment. So one thing is to get them to explore, but another thing is to get them to do this kind of social learning. So look at a person who’s next to you and figure out what it is that they’re doing. And in robotics, for example, there’s a lot of attempts to use this kind of imitative learning to train robots. But here’s the catch, and the catch is that innovation-imitation trade-off that I mentioned. And in empirical work that we’ve done, we’ve shown that when you look at kids imitating, it’s really fascinating because even three-year-olds will imitate the details of what someone else is doing, but they’ll integrate, OK, I saw you do this. I saw this other person do something a little different. I have some information about how this machine works, for example, myself. And the children will put all those together to design the next thing that would be the right thing to do. So they’re constantly social referencing. They imitate literally from the moment that they’re born. They’re imitating us. They’re paying attention to us. They’re seeing what we do. But then they’re taking that information and integrating it with all the other information they have, say, from their own exploration and putting that together to try to design a new way of being, to try and do something that’s different from all the things that anyone has done before.

ezra klein

So the meta message of this conversation of what I took from your book is that learning a lot about a child’s brain actually throws a totally different light on the adult brain. As you’ve been learning so much about the effort to create A.I., has it made you think about the human brain differently?

alison gopnik

Well, I have to say actually being involved in the A.I. project, in many ways, makes the differences more salient than the similarities. Because over and over again, something that is so simple, say, for young children that we just take it for granted, like the fact that when you go into a new maze, you explore it, that turns out to be really hard to figure out how to do with an A.I. system. Or to take the example about the robot imitators, this is a really lovely project that we’re working on with some people from Google Brain. They thought, OK, well, a good way to get a robot to learn how to do things is to imitate what a human is doing. So what they did was have humans who were, say, manipulating a bunch of — putting things on a desk in a virtual environment. And the robot is sitting there and watching what the human does when they take up the pen and put it in the drawer in the virtual environment. And it turned out that the problem was if you train the robot that way, then they learn how to do exactly the same thing that the human did. But as I say — and this is always sort of amazing to me — you put the pen 5 centimeters to one side, and now they have no idea what to do. But it turns out that if instead of that, what you do is you have the human just play with the things on the desk. You tell the human, I just want you to do stuff with the things that are here. Just play with them. Just do the things that you think are interesting or fun. And then you use that to train the robots. The robots are much more resilient. So part of it kind of goes in circles. So it’s also for the children imitating the more playful things that the adults are doing, or at least, for robots, that’s helping the robots to be more effective. I think anyone who’s worked with human brains and then goes to try to do A.I., the gulf is really pretty striking. And the difference between just the things that we take for granted that, say, children are doing and the things that even the very best, most impressive A.I. systems can do is really striking. Now here’s a specific thing that I’m puzzled about that I think we’ve learned from looking at the A.I. example. In A.I., you sort of have a choice often between just doing the thing that’s the obvious thing that you’ve been trained to do or just doing something that’s kind of random and noisy. Those are sort of the options. The amazing thing about kids is that they do things that are unexpected. They’re not just doing the obvious thing, but they’re not just behaving completely randomly. And I think it’s a really interesting question about how do you search through a space of possibilities, for example, where you’re searching and looking around widely enough so that you can get to something that’s genuinely new, but you aren’t just doing something that’s completely random and noisy. I’ve been thinking about the old program, “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” if you just think about the things that kids say, collect them. A lovely example that one of my computer science postdocs gave the other day was that her three-year-old was walking on the campus and saw the Campanile at Berkeley. So the Campanile is the big clock tower at Berkeley. And he looked up at the clock tower, and he said, there’s a clock at the top there. There’s a clock way, way up high at the top of that tower. And then he said, I guess they want to make sure that the children and the students don’t break the clock. So they put it really, really high up.

ezra klein

It’s very funny.

alison gopnik

And that’s exactly the example of the sort of things that children do. It’s not something he’s ever heard anybody else say. It kind of makes sense. It’s not random. But of course, it’s not something that any grown-up would say. In a sense, it’s a really creative solution. And I think that for A.I., the challenge is, how could we get a system that’s capable of doing something that’s really new, which is what you want if you want robustness and resilience, and isn’t just random, but is new, but appropriately new.

ezra klein

I always wonder if the A.I., two-year-old, three-year-old comparisons are just a category error there, in the sense that you might say a small bat can do something that no children can do, which is it can fly. GPT 3, the open A.I. program, can do something that no two-year-old can do effortlessly, which is mimic the text of a certain kind of author. Is it just going to be the case that there are certain collaborations of our physical forms and molecular structures and so on that give our intelligence different categories? I always wonder if there’s almost a kind of comfort being taken at how hard it is to do two-year-old style things. And meanwhile, I don’t want to put too much weight on it’s beating everybody at Go, but that what it does seem plausible it could do in 10 years will be quite remarkable. Now, again, that’s different than the conscious agent, right, that has to make its way through the world on its own. I’m curious how much weight you put on the idea that that might just be the wrong comparison.

alison gopnik

This is the old point about asking whether an A.I. can think is like asking whether a submarine can swim, right? It feels like it’s just a category. It’s just a category error. And of course, as I say, we have two-year-olds around a lot, so we don’t really need any more two-year-olds. We should be designing these systems so they’re complementary to our intelligence, rather than somehow being a reproduction of our intelligence. But on the other hand, there are very — I mean, again, just take something really simple. Like, it would be really good to have robots that could pick things up and put them in boxes, right? That doesn’t seem like such a highfalutin skill to be able to have. And that could pick things up and put them in boxes and now when you gave it a screw that looked a little different from the previous screw and a box that looked a little different from the previous box, that they could figure out, oh, yeah, no, that one’s a screw, and it goes in the screw box, not the other box. And it turns out that even to do just these really, really simple things that we would really like to have artificial systems do, it’s really hard. And those are things that two-year-olds do really well. And we can think about what is it. On the other hand, the two-year-olds don’t get bored knowing how to put things in boxes. So what is it that they’ve got, what mechanisms do they have that could help us with some of these kinds of problems? And another example that we’ve been working on a lot with the Bay Area group is just vision. So just look at a screen with a lot of pixels, and make sense out of it. And as you probably know if you look at something like ImageNet, you can show, say, a deep learning system a whole lot of pictures of cats and dogs on the web, and eventually you’ll get it so that it can, most of the time, say this is the cat, and this is the dog. But then you can give it something that is just obviously not a cat or a dog, and they’ll make a mistake. And they won’t be able to generalize, even to say a dog on a video that’s actually moving. So even if you take something as simple as that you would like to have your systems actually — you’d like to have the computer in your car actually be able to identify this is a pedestrian or a car, it turns out that even those simple things involve abilities that we see in very young children that are actually quite hard to program into a computer. Some of the things that we’re looking at, for instance, is with children, when they’re learning to identify objects in the world, one thing they do is they pick them up and then they move around. Look at them from different angles, look at them from the top, look at them from the bottom, look at your hands this way, look at your hands that way. Walk around to the other side, pick things up and get into everything and make a terrible mess because you’re picking them up and throwing them around. But it turns out that may be just the kind of thing that you need to do, not to do anything fancy, just to have vision, just to be able to see the objects in the way that adults see the objects.

ezra klein

I think it’s a good place to come to a close. So, let me ask you a variation on what’s our final question. What are three children’s books you love and would recommend to the audience?

alison gopnik

Yeah, so I was thinking a lot about this, and I actually had converged on two children’s books. And then yesterday, I went to see my grandchildren for the first time in a year, my beloved grandchildren. And I was really pleased because my intuitions about the best books were completely confirmed by this great reunion with the grandchildren. So my five-year-old grandson, who hasn’t been in our house for a year, first said, I love you, grandmom, and then said, you know, grandmom, do you still have that book that you have at your house with the little boy who has this white suit, and he goes to the island with the monsters on it, and then he comes back again? And I said, you mean “Where the Wild Things Are”? And he said, that’s it, that’s the one with the wild things with the monsters. Do you still have that book? Could we read that book at your house? So I figure that’s a pretty serious endorsement when a five-year-old remembers something from a year ago. So that’s the first one, especially for the younger children. All of the Maurice Sendak books, but especially “Where the Wild Things Are” is a fantastic, wonderful book. And then for older children, that same day, my nine-year-old, who is very into the Marvel universe and superheroes, said, could we read a chapter from Mary Poppins, which is, again, something that grandmom reads. And we had a marvelous time reading Mary Poppins. And he said, the book is so much better than the movie. And he was absolutely right. And the reason is that when you actually read the Mary Poppins books, especially the later ones, like “Mary Poppins in the Park” and “Mary Poppins Opens the Door,” Mary Poppins is a much stranger, weirder, darker figure than Julie Andrews is. So if you’ve seen the movie, you have no idea what Mary Poppins is about. Essentially what Mary Poppins is about is this very strange, surreal set of adventures that the children are having with this figure, who, as I said to Augie, is much more like Iron Man or Batman or Doctor Strange than Julie Andrews, right? Who’s this powerful and mysterious, sometimes dark, but ultimately good, creature in your experience. So I keep thinking, oh, yeah, now what we really need to do is add Mary Poppins to the Marvel universe, and that would be a much better version. And let me give you a third book, which is much more obscure. There’s a book called “The Children of Green Knowe,” K-N-O-W-E. I like this because it’s a book about a grandmother and her grandson. And he comes to visit her in this strange, old house in the Cambridge countryside. And gradually, it gets to be clear that there are ghosts of the history of this house. And what I like about all three of these books, in their different ways, is that I think they capture this thing that’s so distinctive about childhood, the fact that on the one hand, you’re in this safe place. So with the Wild Things, he’s in his room, where mom is, where supper is going to be. And all the time, sitting in that room, he also adventures out in this boat to these strange places where wild things are, including he himself as a wild thing. And the same thing is true with Mary Poppins. So there are these children who are just leading this very ordinary British middle class life in the ’30s. And they’re going to the greengrocer and the fishmonger. And yet, there’s all this strangeness, this weirdness, the surreal things just about those everyday experiences. And the same way with “The Children of Green Knowe.” You’re going to visit your grandmother in her house in the country. And then it turns out that that house is full of spirits and ghosts and traditions and things that you’ve learned from the past. All three of those books really capture what’s special about childhood. It’s that combination of a small, safe world, and it’s actually having that small, safe world that lets you explore much wilder, crazier stranger set of worlds than any grown-up ever gets to.

ezra klein

Alison Gopnik, thank you very much.

alison gopnik

Thank you, Ezra. [MUSIC PLAYING]

ezra klein

Thank you to Alison Gopnik for being here. I’m going to keep it up with these little occasional recommendations after the show. I’m a writing nerd. I mean, obviously, I’m a writer, but I like writing software. When I went to Vox Media, partially I did that because of their great CMS or publishing software Chorus. And I’m always looking for really good clean composition apps. I find Word and Pages and Google Docs to be just horrible to write in. And having a good space to write in, it actually helps me think. But I found something recently that I like. And I’m not getting paid to promote them or anything, I just like it. It’s called Calmly Writer. You could just find it at calmywriter.com. And it’s the cleanest writing interface, simplest of these programs I found. So if you’re looking for a real lightweight, easy place to do some writing, Calmly Writer. But I’d be interested to hear what you all like because I’ve become a little bit of a nerd about these apps. That’s it for the show. Thank you for listening. As always, if you want to help the show out, leave us a review wherever you are listening to it now. Or send this episode to a friend, a family member, somebody you want to talk about it with. It really does help the show grow. “The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It is produced by Roge Karma and Jeff Geld; fact-checked by Michelle Harris; original music by Isaac Jones; and mixing by Jeff Geld. [MUSIC PLAYING]

April 16, 2021

Produced by ‘The Ezra Klein Show’

Here’s a sobering thought: The older we get, the harder it is for us to learn, to question, to reimagine. This isn’t just habit hardening into dogma. It’s encoded into the way our brains change as we age. And it’s worsened by an intellectual and economic culture that prizes efficiency and dismisses play.

Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, where she runs the Cognitive Development and Learning Lab; she’s also the author of over 100 papers and half a dozen books, including “The Gardener and the Carpenter” and “The Philosophical Baby.” What I love about her work is she takes the minds of children seriously. The child’s mind is tuned to learn. They are, she writes, the R. & D. departments of the human race. But a mind tuned to learn works differently from a mind trying to exploit what it already knows.

So instead of asking what children can learn from us, perhaps we need to reverse the question: What can we learn from them?

In this conversation on “The Ezra Klein Show,” Gopnik and I discuss the way children think, the cognitive reasons social change so often starts with the young, and the power of play. We talk about why Gopnik thinks children should be considered an entirely different form of Homo sapiens, the crucial difference between “spotlight” consciousness and “lantern” consciousness, why “going for a walk with a 2-year-old is like going for a walk with William Blake,” what A.I. researchers are borrowing from human children, the effects of different types of meditation on the brain and more.

(A full transcript of the episode can be found here.)

The Ezra Klein Show Poster

A Conversation About Human Minds, for Human Minds

The psychologist Alison Gopnik and Ezra Klein discuss what children can teach adults about learning, consciousness and play.

transcript

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transcript

A Conversation About Human Minds, for Human Minds

The psychologist Alison Gopnik and Ezra Klein discuss what children can teach adults about learning, consciousness and play.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

ezra klein

I’m Ezra Klein, and this is “The Ezra Klein Show.”

It probably won’t surprise you that I’m one of those parents who reads a lot of books about parenting. And they’re mostly bad, particularly the books for dads. So many of those books have this weird, “dude, you’re going to be a dad, bro,” tone. It’s a terrible literature. But one of the great finds for me in the parenting book world has been Alison Gopnik’s work. Gopnik runs the Cognitive Development and Learning Lab at UC Berkeley. She’s in both the psychology and philosophy departments there. She’s part of the A.I. working group there. And one of the things about her work, the thing that sets it apart for me is she uses children and studies children to understand all of us. She takes childhood seriously as a phase in human development. And why not, right? You’re watching consciousness come online in real-time. You’re watching language and culture and social rules being absorbed and learned and changed, importantly changed. Her books haven’t just changed how I look at my son. They’ve really changed how I look at myself, how I look at all of us. And one of them in particular that I read recently is “The Philosophical Baby,” which blew my mind a little bit. Because what she does in that book is show through a lot of experiments and research that there is a way in which children are a lot smarter than adults — I think that’s the right way to say that — a way in which their strangest, silliest seeming behaviors are actually remarkable. This is her core argument. Children are tuned to learn. And when you tune a mind to learn, it actually used to work really differently than a mind that already knows a lot. The efficiency that our minds develop as we get older, it has amazing advantages. Unlike my son — and I don’t want to brag here — unlike my son, I can make it from his bedroom to the kitchen without any stops along the way. I can just get right there. But also, unlike my son, I take so much for granted. I have so much trouble actually taking the world on its own terms and trying to derive how it works. I’ve learned so much that I’ve lost the ability to unlearn what I know. And that means I’ve also sometimes lost the ability to question things correctly. So this isn’t just a conversation about kids or for parents. It’s a conversation about humans for humans. We spend so much time and effort trying to teach kids to think like adults. A message of Gopnik’s work and one I take seriously is we need to spend more time and effort as adults trying to think more like kids. As always, my email is ezrakleinshow@nytimes.com, if you’ve got something to teach me. But here is Alison Gopnik.

You write that children aren’t just defective adults, primitive grown-ups, who are gradually attaining our perfection and complexity. Instead, children and adults are different forms of Homo sapiens. How so?

alison gopnik

Well, from an evolutionary biology point of view, one of the things that’s really striking is this relationship between what biologists call life history, how our developmental sequence unfolds, and things like how intelligent we are. And there’s a very, very general relationship between how long a period of childhood an organism has and roughly how smart they are, how big their brains are, how flexible they are. And an idea that I think a lot of us have now is that part of that is because you’ve really got these two different creatures. So you’ve got one creature that’s really designed to explore, to learn, to change. That’s the child form. And then you’ve got this other creature that’s really designed to exploit, as computer scientists say, to go out, find resources, make plans, make things happen, including finding resources for that wild, crazy explorer that you have in your nursery. And the idea is that those two different developmental and evolutionary agendas come with really different kinds of cognition, really different kinds of computation, really different kinds of brains, and I think with very different kinds of experiences of the world. So, the very way that you experience the world, your consciousness, is really different if your agenda is going to be, get the next thing done, figure out how to do it, figure out what the next thing to do after that is, versus extract as much information as I possibly can from the world. And I think adults have the capacity to some extent to go back and forth between those two states. But I think that babies and young children are in that explore state all the time. That’s really what they’re designed to do. They’re like a different kind of creature than the adult. You sort of might think about, well, are there other ways that evolution could have solved this explore, exploit trade-off, this problem about how do you get a creature that can do things, but can also learn things really widely? And Peter Godfrey-Smith’s wonderful book — I’ve just been reading “Metazoa” — talks about the octopus. And the octopus is very puzzling because the octos don’t have a long childhood. And yet, they seem to be really smart, and they have these big brains with lots of neurons. But it also turns out that octos actually have divided brains. So they have one brain in the center in their head, and then they have another brain or maybe eight brains in each one of the tentacles. And if you actually watch what the octos do, the tentacles are out there doing the explorer thing. They’re getting information, figuring out what the water is like. And then the central head brain is doing things like saying, OK, now it’s time to squirt. Now it’s time to get food. So, my thought is that we could imagine an alternate evolutionary path by which each of us was both a child and an adult. So imagine if your arms were like your two-year-old, right? So that you are always trying to get them to stop exploring because you had to get lunch. I suspect that may be what the consciousness of an octo is like. Now, we’re obviously not like that. But I think even human adults, that might be an interesting kind of model for some of what it’s like to be a human adult in particular. So I think we have children who really have this explorer brain and this explorer experience. They’re kind of like our tentacles. They’re going out and figuring things out in the world. And then we have adults who are really the head brain, the one that’s actually going out and doing things. But I think even as adults, we can have this kind of split brain phenomenon, where a bit of our experience is like being a child again and vice versa.

ezra klein

I feel like that’s an answer that’s going to launch 100 science fiction short stories, as people imagine the stories you’re describing here. One of the things I really like about this is that it pushes towards a real respect for the child’s brain. If one defined intelligence as the ability to learn and to learn fast and to learn flexibly, a two-year-old is a lot more intelligent right now than I am. I have more knowledge, and I have more experience, and I have more ability to exploit existing learnings. But they have more capacity and flexibility and changeability. Is that right? And to the extent it is, what gives it that flexibility? What are the trade-offs to have that flexibility?

alison gopnik

Yeah, so I think a really deep idea that comes out of computer science originally — in fact, came out of the original design of the computer — is this idea of the explore or exploit trade-off is what they call it. So if you’re thinking about intelligence, there’s a real genuine tradeoff between your ability to explore as many options as you can versus your ability to quickly, efficiently commit to a particular option and implement it. And it turns out that even if you just do the math, it’s really impossible to get a system that optimizes both of those things at the same time, that is exploring and exploiting simultaneously because they’re really deeply in tension with one another. And the way that computer scientists have figured out to try to solve this problem very characteristically is give the system a chance to explore first, give it a chance to figure out all the information, and then once it’s got the information, it can go out and it can exploit later on. So, explore first and then exploit. And I think that evolution has used that strategy in designing human development in particular because we have this really long childhood. But I think you can see the same thing in non-human animals and not just in mammals, but in birds and maybe even in insects. So you see this really deep tension, which I think we’re facing all the time between how much are we considering different possibilities and how much are we acting efficiently and swiftly. There’s, again, an intrinsic tension between how much you know and how open you are to new possibilities. So, again, just sort of something you can formally show is that if I know a lot, then I should really rely on that knowledge. And I should, to some extent, discount something new that somebody tells me. Whereas if I don’t know a lot, then almost by definition, I have to be open to more knowledge. But I think it’s more than just the fact that you have what the Zen masters call beginner’s mind, right, that you start out not knowing as much. I think we can actually point to things like the physical makeup of a child’s brain and an adult brain that makes them differently adapted for exploring and exploiting.

ezra klein

You have some work on this. What does look different in the two brains?

alison gopnik

So there’s two big areas of development that seem to be different. So one of them is that the young brain seems to start out making many, many new connections. So what you’ll see when you look at a chart of synaptic development, for instance, is, you’ve got this early period when many, many, many new connections are being made. And then you’ve got this later period where the connections that are used a lot that are working well, they get maintained, they get strengthened, they get to be more efficient. And then the ones that aren’t are pruned, as neuroscientists say. They kind of disappear. The consequence of that is that you have this young brain that has a lot of what neuroscientists call plasticity. It can change really easily, essentially. But it’s not very good at putting on its jacket and getting into preschool in the morning. It’s not very good at doing anything that is the sort of things that you need to act well. And it’s especially not good at things like inhibition. It’s especially not good at doing things like having one part of the brain restrict what another part of the brain is going to do. So that’s one change that’s changed from this lots of local connections, lots of plasticity, to something that’s got longer and more efficient connections, but is less changeable. The other change that’s particularly relevant to humans is that we have the prefrontal cortex. That’s the part of our brain that’s sort of the executive office of the brain, where long-term planning, inhibition, focus, all those things seem to be done by this part of the brain. And what happens with development is that that part of the brain, that executive part gets more and more control over the rest of the brain as you get older. So that the ability to have an impulse in the back of your brain and the front of your brain can come in and shut that out. Or there’s a distraction in the back of your brain, something that is in your visual field that isn’t relevant to what you do. And the frontal part can literally shut down that other part of your brain. But that process takes a long time. So when you start out, you’ve got much less of that kind of frontal control, more of, I guess, in some ways, almost more like the octos where parts of your brain are doing their own thing. And then as you get older, you get more and more of that control.

ezra klein

And is that the dynamic that leads to this spotlight consciousness, lantern consciousness distinction? And can you talk about that? Because I know I think about it all the time.

alison gopnik

So those are two really, really different kinds of consciousness. One kind of consciousness — this is an old metaphor — is to think about attention as being like a spotlight. It comes in. It illuminates the thing that you want to find out about. And you don’t see the things that are on the other side. And I think that in other states of consciousness, especially the state of consciousness you’re in when you’re a child — but I think there are things that adults do that put them in that state as well — you have something that’s much more like a lantern. So you’re actually taking in information from everything that’s going on around you. And the most important thing is, is this going to teach me something? Is this new? Is this interesting? Is this curious, rather than focusing your attention and consciousness on just one thing at a time. So, a lot of the theories of consciousness start out from what I think of as professorial consciousness. So, surprise, surprise, when philosophers and psychologists are thinking about consciousness, they think about the kind of consciousness that philosophers and psychologists have a lot of the time. And that sort of consciousness is, say, you’re sitting in your chair. You have the paper to write. You’re desperately trying to focus on the specific things that you said that you would do. And then you kind of get distracted, and your mind wanders a bit. And you start ruminating about other things. And that kind of goal-directed, focused, consciousness, which goes very much with the sense of a self — so there’s a me that’s trying to finish up the paper or answer the emails or do all the things that I have to do — that’s really been the focus of a lot of theories of consciousness, is if that kind of consciousness was what consciousness was all about. And we even can show neurologically that, for instance, what happens in that state is when I attend to something, when I pay attention to something, what happens is the thing that I’m paying attention to becomes much brighter and more vivid. And I actually shut down all the other things that I’m not paying attention to. You can even see that in the brain. So the part of your brain that’s relevant to what you’re attending to becomes more active, more plastic, more changeable. And the other nearby parts get shut down, again, inhibited. So there’s a really nice picture about what happens in professorial consciousness. That’s kind of how consciousness works. And again, maybe not surprisingly, people have acted as if that kind of consciousness is what consciousness is really all about. That’s really what you want when you’re conscious. And what I would argue is there’s all these other kinds of states of experience — and not just me, other philosophers as well. There’s all these other kinds of ways of being sentient, ways of being aware, ways of being conscious, that are not like that at all. So, one interesting example that there’s actually some studies of is to think about when you’re completely absorbed in a really interesting movie. You’re kind of gone. Your self is gone. You’re not deciding what to pay attention to in the movie. The movie is just completely captivating. In the state of that focused, goal-directed consciousness, those frontal areas are very involved and very engaged. And there seem to actually be two pathways. One of them is the one that’s sort of here’s the goal-directed pathway, what they sometimes call the task dependent activity. And then the other one is what’s sometimes called the default mode. And that’s the sort of ruminating or thinking about the other things that you have to do, being in your head, as we say, as the other mode. When you look at someone who’s in the scanner, who’s really absorbed in a great movie, neither of those parts are really active. And instead, other parts of the brain are more active. And that brain, the brain of the person who’s absorbed in the movie, looks more like the child’s brain.

ezra klein

But now, whether you’re a philosopher or not, or an academic or a journalist or just somebody who spends a lot of time on their computer or a student, we now have a modernity that is constantly training something more like spotlight consciousness, probably more so than would have been true at other times in human history. And something that I took from your book is that there is the ability to train, or at least, experience different kinds of consciousness through different kinds of other experiences like travel, or you talk about meditation. But one of the thoughts it triggered for me, as somebody who’s been pretty involved in meditation for the last decade or so, there’s a real dominance of the vipassana style concentration meditation, single point meditations. Just watch the breath. Just think about the breath right at the edge of the nostril. And without taking anything away from that tradition, it made me wonder if one reason that has become so dominant in America, and particularly in Northern California, is because it’s a very good match for the kind of concentration in consciousness that our economy is consciously trying to develop in us, this get things done, be very focused, don’t ruminate too much, like a neoliberal form of consciousness. Do you think there’s something to that?

alison gopnik

I think that there’s a paradox about, for example, going out and saying, I am going to meditate and stop trying to get goals. Because I have this goal, which is I want to be a much better meditator. And I have done a bit of meditation and workshops, and it’s always a little amusing when you see the young men who are going to prove that they’re better at meditating. They can sit for longer than anybody else can. But I think it’s important to say when you’re thinking about things like meditation, or you’re thinking about alternative states of consciousness in general, that there’s lots of different alternative states of consciousness. So it isn’t just a choice between lantern and spotlight. There’s lots of different ways that we have of being in the world, lots of different kinds of experiences that we have. And I suspect that they each come with a separate, a different kind of focus, a different way of being. And in meditation, you can see the contrast between some of these more pointed kinds of meditation versus what’s sometimes called open awareness meditation. So open awareness meditation is when you’re not just focused on one thing, when you try to be open to everything that’s going on around you. And the phenomenology of that is very much like this kind of lantern, that everything at once is illuminated. And I think that kind of open-ended meditation and the kind of consciousness that it goes with is actually a lot like things that, for example, the romantic poets, like Wordsworth, talked about. So there’s this lovely concept that I like of the numinous. And sometimes it’s connected with spirituality, but I don’t think it has to be. It’s this idea that you’re going through the world. And often, quite suddenly, if you’re an adult, everything in the world seems to be significant and important and important and significant in a way that makes you insignificant by comparison. My colleague, Dacher Keltner, has studied awe. And awe is kind of an example of this. But the numinous sort of turns up the dial on awe. And part of the numinous is it doesn’t just have to be about something that’s bigger than you, like a mountain. It could just be your garden or the street that you’re walking on. And suddenly that becomes illuminated. Everything around you becomes illuminated. And you yourself sort of disappear. And I think that’s kind of the best analogy I can think of for the state that the children are in. And it’s worth saying, it’s not like the children are always in that state. So the children, perhaps because they spend so much time in that state, also can be fussy and cranky and desperately wanting their next meal or desperately wanting comfort. They’re not always in that kind of broad state. But I think they spend much more of their time in that state. That’s more like their natural state than adults are.

ezra klein

Do you think for kids that play or imaginative play should be understood as a form of consciousness, a state?

alison gopnik

Yeah, that’s a really good question. So there’s really a kind of coherent whole about what childhood is all about. So if you think from this broad evolutionary perspective about these creatures that are designed to explore, I think there’s a whole lot of other things that go with that. So one thing that goes with that is this broad-based consciousness. But another thing that goes with it is the activity of play. And if you think about play, the definition of play is that it’s the thing that you do when you’re not working. Now it’s not a form of experience and consciousness so much, but it’s a form of activity. It’s a form of actually doing things that, nevertheless, have this characteristic of not being immediately directed to a goal. If you look across animals, for example, very characteristically, it’s the young animals that are playing across an incredibly wide range of different kinds of animals. Sometimes if they’re mice, they’re play fighting. And if they’re crows, they’re playing with twigs and figuring out how they can use the twigs. So, what goes on in play is different. But it’s really fascinating that it’s the young animals who are playing. And all of the theories that we have about play are play’s another form of this kind of exploration. So it’s another way of having this explore state of being in the world. Now it’s not so much about you’re visually taking in all the information around you the way that you do when you’re exploring. Now it’s more like you’re actually doing things on the world to try to explore the space of possibilities. Another thing that people point out about play is play is fun. There’s a certain kind of happiness and joy that goes with being in that state when you’re just playing. And again, it’s not the state that kids are in all the time. But it’s the state that they’re in a lot of the time and a state that they’re in when they’re actually engaged in play. One of the things that’s really fascinating that’s coming out in A.I. now — and I’ve been spending a lot of time collaborating with people in computer science at Berkeley who are trying to design better artificial intelligence systems — the current systems that we have, I mean, the languages they’re designed to optimize, they’re really exploit systems. What you do with these systems is say, here’s what your goal is. You go out and maximize that goal. And it turns out that if you have a system like that, it will be very good at doing the things that it was optimized for, but not very good at being resilient, not very good at changing when things are different, right? I’ve been really struck working with people in robotics, for example. When people say, well, the robots have trouble generalizing, they don’t mean they have trouble generalizing from driving a Tesla to driving a Lexus. They mean they have trouble going from putting the block down at this point to putting the block down a centimeter to the left, right? I mean, they really have trouble generalizing even when they’re very good. And it turns out that if you get these systems to have a period of play, where they can just be generating things in a wilder way or get them to train on a human playing, they end up being much more resilient. They’re much better at generalizing, which is, of course, the great thing that children are also really good at.

ezra klein

I was thinking about how a moment ago, you said, play is what you do when you’re not working. And I was thinking, it’s absolutely not what I do when I’m not working. I’m constantly like you, sitting here, being like, don’t work. And that’s not playing. And in fact, I think I’ve lost a lot of my capacity for play. I’ve trained myself to be productive so often that it’s sometimes hard to put it down. And it takes actual, dedicated effort to not do things that feel like work to me. What’s lost in that? Because I think there’s cultural pressure to not play, but I think that your research and some of the others suggest maybe we’ve made a terrible mistake on that by not honoring play more.

alison gopnik

Yeah, I think there’s a lot of evidence for that. And it’s interesting that, as I say, the hard-headed engineers, who are trying to do things like design robots, are increasingly realizing that play is something that’s going to actually be able to get you systems that do better in going through the world. Part of the problem — and this is a general explore or exploit problem. Part of the problem with play is if you think about it in terms of what its long-term benefits are going to be, then it isn’t play anymore. And if you sort of set up any particular goal, if you say, oh, well, if you play more, you’ll be more robust or more resilient. And you say, OK, so now I want to design you to do this particular thing well. Then you’re always going to do better by just optimizing for that particular thing than by playing. So what play is really about is about this ability to change, to be resilient in the face of lots of different environments, in the face of lots of different possibilities. It’s about dealing with something new or unexpected. And it’s interesting that if you look at what might look like a really different literature, look at studies about the effects of preschool on later development in children. So when they first started doing these studies where you looked at the effects of an enriching preschool — and these were play-based preschools, the way preschools still are to some extent and certainly should be and have been in the past. So, basically, you put a child in a rich environment where there’s lots of opportunities for play. And it turned out that if you looked at things like just how well you did on a standardized test, after a couple of years, the effects seem to sort of fade out. And that was an argument against early education. But it turns out that if you look 30 years later, you have these sleeper effects where these children who played are not necessarily getting better grades three years later. But they’re not going to prison. Their health is better. Their salaries are higher. And what that suggests is the things that having a lot of experience with play was letting you do was to be able to deal with unexpected challenges better, rather than that it was allowing you to attain any particular outcome. And it really makes it tricky if you want to do evidence-based policy, which we all want to do. And —

ezra klein

That’s optimistic.

alison gopnik

Well, or what at least some people want to do. Any kind of metric that you said, almost by definition, if it’s the metric, you’re going to do better if you teach to the test. So there’s always this temptation to do that, even though the advantages that play gives you seem to be these advantages of robustness and resilience. So for instance, if you look at rats and you look at the rats who get to do play fighting versus rats who don’t, it’s not that the rats who play can do things that the rats can’t play can, like every specific fighting technique the rats will have. But if you look at their subtlety at their ability to deal with context, at their ability to decide when should I do this versus that, how should I deal with the whole ensemble that I’m in, that’s where play has its great advantages.

ezra klein

Do you play?

alison gopnik

Well, I was going to say, when you were saying that you don’t play, you read science fiction, right? And you watch the Marvel Comics universe movies.

ezra klein

I do, do that.

alison gopnik

And I think for grown-ups, that’s really the equivalent of the kind of — especially the kind of pretend play and imaginative play that you see in children. And those two things are very parallel. There’s even a nice study by Marjorie Taylor who studied a lot of this imaginative play that when you talk to people who are adult writers, for example, they tell you that they remember their imaginary friends from when they were kids. Everybody has imaginary friends. But it’s sort of like they keep them in their Rolodex. They keep in touch with their imaginary friends. And I think for adults, a lot of the function, which has always been kind of mysterious — like, why would reading about something that hasn’t happened help you to understand things that have happened, or why would it be good in general — I think for adults a lot of that kind of activity is the equivalent of play. And I don’t do that as much as I would like to or as much as I did 20 years ago, which makes me think a little about how the society has changed. But I do think that counts as play for adults. And of course, you’ve got the best play thing there could be, which is if you’ve got a two-year-old or a three-year-old or a four-year-old, they kind of force you to be in that state, whether you start out wanting to be or not.

ezra klein

Yeah, there’s definitely something to that. I’ve had to spend a lot more time thinking about pickle trucks now. [MUSIC PLAYING]

One of the arguments you make throughout the book is that children play a population level role, right? We’re talking here about the way a child becomes an adult, how do they learn, how do they play in a way that keeps them from going to jail later. But you sort of say that children are the R&D wing of our species and that as generations turn over, we change in ways and adapt to things in ways that the normal genetic pathway of evolution wouldn’t necessarily predict. And we do it partially through children. Could you talk a bit about that, what this sort of period of plasticity is doing at scale?

alison gopnik

Yeah, so I think that’s a good question. And we don’t really completely know what the answer is. But, again, the sort of baseline is that humans have this really, really long period of immaturity. So we have more different people who are involved and engaged in taking care of children. And all that looks as if it’s very evolutionarily costly. So there’s a question about why would it be. Now, of course, it could just be an epiphenomenon. But it seems to be a really general pattern across so many different species at so many different times. So what kind of function could that serve? Well, if you think about human beings, we’re being faced with unexpected environments all the time. One way you could think about it is, our ecological niche is the unknown unknowns. That’s really what we’re adapted to, are the unknown unknowns. That’s what we’re all about. And of course, once we develop a culture, that just gets to be more true because each generation is going to change its environment in various ways that affect its culture. And that means that now, the next generation is going to have yet another new thing to try to deal with and to understand. So I think more and more, especially in the cultural context, that having a new generation that can look around at everything around it and say, let me try to make sense out of this, or let me understand this and let me think of all the new things that I could do, given this new environment, which is the thing that children, and I think not just infants and babies, but up through adolescence, that children are doing, that could be a real advantage. And then once you’ve done that kind of exploration of the space of possibilities, then as an adult now in that environment, you can decide which of those things you want to have happen.

ezra klein

Does this help explain why revolutionary political ideas are so much more appealing to sort of teens and 20 somethings and then why so much revolutionary political action comes from those age groups, comes from students? It’s partially this ability to exist within the imaginarium and have a little bit more of a porous border between what exists and what could than you have when you’re 50.

alison gopnik

So we actually did some really interesting experiments where we were looking at how these kinds of flexibility develop over the space of development. And one of the things that we discovered was that if you look at your understanding of the physical world, the preschoolers are the most flexible, and then they get less flexible at school age and then less so with adolescence. But if you look at the social world, there’s really this burst of plasticity and flexibility in adolescence. And the neuroscience suggests that, too. So if you look at the social parts of the brain, you see this kind of rebirth of plasticity and flexibility in adolescence. And I think that that’s exactly what you were saying, exactly what that’s for, is that it gives the adolescents a chance to consider new kinds of social possibilities, and to take the information that they got from the people around them and say, OK, given that that’s true, what’s something new that we could do? What’s something different from what we’ve done before? And if you look at the literature about cultural evolution, I think it’s true that culture is one of the really distinctive human capacities. There’s this constant tension between imitation and innovation. So to have a culture, one thing you need to do is to have a generation that comes in and can take advantage of all the other things that the previous generations have learned. But of course, what you also want is for that new generation to be able to modify and tweak and change and alter the things that the previous generation has done. And I think the period of childhood and adolescence in particular gives you a chance to be that kind of cutting edge of change. And empirically, what you see is that very often for things like music or clothing or culture or politics or social change, you see that the adolescents are on the edge, for better or for worse. And again, there’s this kind of tradeoff tension between all us cranky, old people saying, what’s wrong with kids nowadays? Because there’s a reason why the previous generation is doing the things that they’re doing and the sense of, here’s this great range of possibilities that we haven’t considered before.

ezra klein

What does this somewhat deeper understanding of the child’s brain imply for caregivers? What does taking more seriously what these states of consciousness are like say about how you should act as a parent and uncle and aunt, a grandparent?

alison gopnik

Well, I think here’s the wrong message to take, first of all, which I think is often the message that gets taken from this kind of information, especially in our time and our place and among people in our culture. The wrong message is, oh, OK, they’re doing all this learning, so we better start teaching them really, really early. We better make sure that all this learning is going to be shaped in the way that we want it to be shaped. And we better make sure that we’re doing the right things, and we’re buying the right apps, and we’re reading the right books, and we’re doing the right things to shape that kind of learning in the way that we, as adults, think that it should be shaped. And that’s not the right thing. That’s actually working against the very function of this early period of exploration and learning. But I do think something that’s important is that the very mundane investment that we make as caregivers, keeping the kids alive, figuring out what it is that they want or need at any moment, those things that are often very time consuming and require a lot of work, it’s that context of being secure and having resources and not having to worry about the immediate circumstances that you’re in. That context that caregivers provide, that’s absolutely crucial. It’s absolutely essential for that broad-based learning and understanding to happen. So just by doing — just by being a caregiver, just by caring, what you’re doing is providing the context in which this kind of exploration can take place. And we’re pretty well designed to think it’s good to care for children in the first place. But I think especially for sort of self-reflective parents, the fact that part of what you’re doing is allowing that to happen is really important. And then the other thing is that I think being with children in that way is a great way for adults to get a sense of what it would be like to have that broader focus. So, going for a walk with a two-year-old is like going for a walk with William Blake. You go to the corner to get milk, and part of what we can even show from the neuroscience is that as adults, when you do something really often, you become habituated. You do the same thing over and over again. It kind of disappears from your consciousness. You’re not doing it with much experience. And again, that’s a lot of the times, that’s a good thing because there’s other things that we have to do. But if you do the same walk with a two-year-old, you realize, wait a minute. This, three blocks, it’s just amazing. It’s so rich. There’s dogs and there’s gates and there’s pizza fliers and there’s plants and trees and there’s airplanes. I’m sure you’ve seen this with your two-year-old with this phenomenon of some plane, plane, plane.

ezra klein

Oh, man.

alison gopnik

And then you suddenly realize —

ezra klein

Airplanes.

alison gopnik

Oh, wait a minute.

ezra klein

He’s like a radar.

alison gopnik

I didn’t know that there was an airplane there. But now that you point it out, sure enough there is one there. So I think the other thing is that being with children can give adults a sense of this broader way of being in the world. So I think both of you can appreciate the fact that caring for children is this fundamental foundational important thing that is allowing exploration and learning to take place, rather than thinking that that’s just kind of the scut work and what you really need to do is go out and do explicit teaching. That’s a way of appreciating it. And I think having this kind of empathic relationship to the children who are exploring so much is another.

ezra klein

What should having more respect for the child’s mind change not for how we care for children, but how we care for ourselves or what kinds of things we open ourselves into? If I want to make my mind a little bit more childlike, aside from trying to appreciate the William Blake-like nature of children, are there things of the child’s life that I should be trying to bring into mind?

alison gopnik

Well, we know something about the sort of functions that this child-like brain serves. So one thing is being able to deal with a lot of new information. And if you think about something like traveling to a new place, that’s a good example for adults, where just being someplace that you haven’t been before. Or another example is just trying to learn a skill that you haven’t learned before. Even if you’re not very good at it, someone once said that if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. Just trying to do something that’s different from the things that you’ve done before, just that can itself put you into a state that’s more like the childlike state. And again, there’s tradeoffs because, of course, we get to be good at doing things, and then we want to do the things that we’re good at. But setting up a new place, a new technique, a new relationship to the world, that’s something that seems to help to put you in this childlike state. And to go back to the parenting point, socially putting people in a state where they feel as if they’ve got a lot of resources, and they’re not under immediate pressure to produce a particular outcome, that seems to be something that helps people to be in this — helps even adults to be in this more playful exploratory state.

ezra klein

What do you think about the twin studies that people used to suggest parenting doesn’t really matter? Do you buy that evidence, or do you think it’s off?

alison gopnik

I think it’s off, but I think it’s often in a way that’s actually kind of interesting. So what I’ve argued is that you’d think that what having children does is introduce more variability into the world, right? So it actually introduces more options, more outcomes. Each of the children comes out differently. You get this different combination of genetics and environment and temperament. And each one of them is going to come out to be really different from anything you would expect beforehand, which is something that I think anybody who has had more than one child is very conscious of. But if you think that part of the function of childhood is to introduce that kind of variability into the world and that being a good caregiver has the effect of allowing children to come out in all these different ways, then the basic methodology of the twin studies is to assume that if parenting has an effect, it’s going to have an effect by the child being more like the parent and by, say, the three children that are the children of the same parent being more like each other than, say, the twins who are adopted by different parents. That’s the kind of basic rationale behind the studies. But if you think that what being a parent does is not make children more like themselves and more like you, but actually make them more different from each other and different from you, then when you do a twin study, you’re not going to see that. And, in fact, one of the things that I think people have been quite puzzled about in twin studies is this idea of the non-shared environment. So it turns out that you look at genetics, and that’s responsible for some of the variance. And you look at parental environment, and that’s responsible for some of it. But a lot of it is just all this other stuff, right? And no one quite knows where all that variability is coming from. But if you think that actually having all that variability is not a bad thing, it’s a good thing — it’s what you want — it’s what childhood and parenting is all about — then having that kind of variation that you can’t really explain either by genetics or by what the parents do, that’s exactly what being a parent, being a caregiver is all about, is for. [MUSIC PLAYING]

ezra klein

So you just heard earlier in the conversation they began doing a lot of work around A.I. And I find the direction you’re coming into this from really interesting that there’s this idea we just create A.I., and now there’s increasingly conversation over the possibility that we will need to parent A.I. Tell me a little bit about those collaborations and the angle you’re taking on this.

alison gopnik

So I’ve been collaborating with a whole group of people. It’s been incredibly fun at the Berkeley Artificial Intelligence Research Group. And what we’ve been trying to do is to try and see what would you have to do to design an A.I. system that was as smart as a two-year-old basically, right? That could do the kinds of things that two-year-olds can do. And it’s kind of striking that the very best state of the art systems that we have that are great at playing Go and playing chess and maybe even driving in some circumstances, are terrible at doing the kinds of things that every two-year-old can do. And the idea is maybe we could look at some of the things that the two-year-olds do when they’re learning and see if that makes a difference to what the A.I.’s are doing when they’re learning. So one way that I think about it sometimes is it’s sort of like if you look at the current models for A.I., it’s like we’re giving these A.I.’s hyper helicopter tiger moms. There’s a programmer who’s hovering over the A.I. and saying, oh, yeah, yeah, you got that one right. That one’s a cat. That one’s a dog. That one’s another cat. That one’s another dog. Or you have the A.I. that’s saying, oh, good, your Go score just went up, so do what you’re doing there. But nope, now you lost that game, so figure out something else to do. And as you might expect, what you end up with is A.I. systems that are very, very good at doing the things that they were trained to do and not very good at all at doing something different. So they can play chess, but if you turn to a child and said, OK, we’re just going to change the rules now so that instead of the knight moving this way, it moves another way, they’d be able to figure out how to adopt what they’re doing. And it’s much harder for A.I. systems to do that. Now, one of the big problems that we have in A.I. is what’s come to be called the alignment problem, is how can you get the A.I. values to be aligned with the values of humans? So the famous example of this is the paperclip apocalypse, where you try to train the robot to make paper clips. And it just goes around and turns everything in the world, including all the humans and all the houses and everything else, into paper clips. If you’ve got this kind of strategy of, here’s the goal, try to accomplish the goal as best as you possibly can, then it’s really kind of worrying about what the goal is, what the values are that you’re giving these A.I. systems. And one idea people have had is, well, are there ways that we can make sure that those values are human values? But of course, one of the things that’s so fascinating about humans is we keep changing our objective functions. What counted as being the good thing, the value 10 years ago might be really different from the thing that we think is important or valuable now. We keep discovering that the things that we thought were the right things to do are not the right things to do. And we change what we do as a result. And it seems as if parents are playing a really deep role in that ability. So if you think about what it’s like to be a caregiver, it involves passing on your values. That’s a really deep part of it. But it also involves allowing the next generation to take those values, look at them in the context of the environment they find themselves in now, reshape them, rethink them, do all the things that we were mentioning that teenagers do — consider different kinds of alternatives. And it’s having a previous generation that’s willing to do both those things. It’s willing to both pass on tradition and tolerate, in fact, even encourage, change, that’s willing to say, here’s my values. But your job is to figure out your own values. That’s what lets humans keep altering their values and goals, and most of the time, for good. So the question is, if we really wanted to have A.I.’s that were really autonomous — and maybe we don’t want to have A.I.’s that are really autonomous. But if we wanted to have A.I.’s that had those kinds of capacities, they’d need to have grandmoms. They’d need to have someone who would tell them, here’s what our human values are, and here’s enough possibilities so that you could decide what your values are and then hope that those values actually turn out to be the right ones.

ezra klein

Something that strikes me about this conversation is exactly what you are touching on, this idea that you can have one objective function. The A.I. will have one goal, and that will never change. You look at any kid, right? And I think it’s called social reference learning. I mean, they’re constantly doing something, and then they look back at their parents to see if their parent is smiling or frowning. Then they do something else and they look back. And this constant touching back, I don’t think I appreciated what a big part of development it was until I was a parent. And I just saw how constant it is, just all day, doing something, touching back, doing something, touching back, like 100 times in an hour. And it seems like that would be one way to work through that alignment problem, to just assume that the learning is going to be social. It’s not just going to be a goal function, it’s going to be a conversation.

alison gopnik

A.I. people love acronyms, it turns out. So the acronym we have for our project is MESS, which stands for Model-Building Exploratory Social Learning Systems. So one piece that we think is really important is this exploration, this ability to go out and find out things about the world, do experiments, be curious. One of the things that we’re doing right now is using some of these kind of video game environments to put A.I. agents and children literally in the same environment. So the A.I. is trying to work through a maze in unity, and the kids are working through the maze in unity. And we can compare what it is that the kids and the A.I.’s do in that same environment. So one thing is to get them to explore, but another thing is to get them to do this kind of social learning. So look at a person who’s next to you and figure out what it is that they’re doing. And in robotics, for example, there’s a lot of attempts to use this kind of imitative learning to train robots. But here’s the catch, and the catch is that innovation-imitation trade-off that I mentioned. And in empirical work that we’ve done, we’ve shown that when you look at kids imitating, it’s really fascinating because even three-year-olds will imitate the details of what someone else is doing, but they’ll integrate, OK, I saw you do this. I saw this other person do something a little different. I have some information about how this machine works, for example, myself. And the children will put all those together to design the next thing that would be the right thing to do. So they’re constantly social referencing. They imitate literally from the moment that they’re born. They’re imitating us. They’re paying attention to us. They’re seeing what we do. But then they’re taking that information and integrating it with all the other information they have, say, from their own exploration and putting that together to try to design a new way of being, to try and do something that’s different from all the things that anyone has done before.

ezra klein

So the meta message of this conversation of what I took from your book is that learning a lot about a child’s brain actually throws a totally different light on the adult brain. As you’ve been learning so much about the effort to create A.I., has it made you think about the human brain differently?

alison gopnik

Well, I have to say actually being involved in the A.I. project, in many ways, makes the differences more salient than the similarities. Because over and over again, something that is so simple, say, for young children that we just take it for granted, like the fact that when you go into a new maze, you explore it, that turns out to be really hard to figure out how to do with an A.I. system. Or to take the example about the robot imitators, this is a really lovely project that we’re working on with some people from Google Brain. They thought, OK, well, a good way to get a robot to learn how to do things is to imitate what a human is doing. So what they did was have humans who were, say, manipulating a bunch of — putting things on a desk in a virtual environment. And the robot is sitting there and watching what the human does when they take up the pen and put it in the drawer in the virtual environment. And it turned out that the problem was if you train the robot that way, then they learn how to do exactly the same thing that the human did. But as I say — and this is always sort of amazing to me — you put the pen 5 centimeters to one side, and now they have no idea what to do. But it turns out that if instead of that, what you do is you have the human just play with the things on the desk. You tell the human, I just want you to do stuff with the things that are here. Just play with them. Just do the things that you think are interesting or fun. And then you use that to train the robots. The robots are much more resilient. So part of it kind of goes in circles. So it’s also for the children imitating the more playful things that the adults are doing, or at least, for robots, that’s helping the robots to be more effective. I think anyone who’s worked with human brains and then goes to try to do A.I., the gulf is really pretty striking. And the difference between just the things that we take for granted that, say, children are doing and the things that even the very best, most impressive A.I. systems can do is really striking. Now here’s a specific thing that I’m puzzled about that I think we’ve learned from looking at the A.I. example. In A.I., you sort of have a choice often between just doing the thing that’s the obvious thing that you’ve been trained to do or just doing something that’s kind of random and noisy. Those are sort of the options. The amazing thing about kids is that they do things that are unexpected. They’re not just doing the obvious thing, but they’re not just behaving completely randomly. And I think it’s a really interesting question about how do you search through a space of possibilities, for example, where you’re searching and looking around widely enough so that you can get to something that’s genuinely new, but you aren’t just doing something that’s completely random and noisy. I’ve been thinking about the old program, “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” if you just think about the things that kids say, collect them. A lovely example that one of my computer science postdocs gave the other day was that her three-year-old was walking on the campus and saw the Campanile at Berkeley. So the Campanile is the big clock tower at Berkeley. And he looked up at the clock tower, and he said, there’s a clock at the top there. There’s a clock way, way up high at the top of that tower. And then he said, I guess they want to make sure that the children and the students don’t break the clock. So they put it really, really high up.

ezra klein

It’s very funny.

alison gopnik

And that’s exactly the example of the sort of things that children do. It’s not something he’s ever heard anybody else say. It kind of makes sense. It’s not random. But of course, it’s not something that any grown-up would say. In a sense, it’s a really creative solution. And I think that for A.I., the challenge is, how could we get a system that’s capable of doing something that’s really new, which is what you want if you want robustness and resilience, and isn’t just random, but is new, but appropriately new.

ezra klein

I always wonder if the A.I., two-year-old, three-year-old comparisons are just a category error there, in the sense that you might say a small bat can do something that no children can do, which is it can fly. GPT 3, the open A.I. program, can do something that no two-year-old can do effortlessly, which is mimic the text of a certain kind of author. Is it just going to be the case that there are certain collaborations of our physical forms and molecular structures and so on that give our intelligence different categories? I always wonder if there’s almost a kind of comfort being taken at how hard it is to do two-year-old style things. And meanwhile, I don’t want to put too much weight on it’s beating everybody at Go, but that what it does seem plausible it could do in 10 years will be quite remarkable. Now, again, that’s different than the conscious agent, right, that has to make its way through the world on its own. I’m curious how much weight you put on the idea that that might just be the wrong comparison.

alison gopnik

This is the old point about asking whether an A.I. can think is like asking whether a submarine can swim, right? It feels like it’s just a category. It’s just a category error. And of course, as I say, we have two-year-olds around a lot, so we don’t really need any more two-year-olds. We should be designing these systems so they’re complementary to our intelligence, rather than somehow being a reproduction of our intelligence. But on the other hand, there are very — I mean, again, just take something really simple. Like, it would be really good to have robots that could pick things up and put them in boxes, right? That doesn’t seem like such a highfalutin skill to be able to have. And that could pick things up and put them in boxes and now when you gave it a screw that looked a little different from the previous screw and a box that looked a little different from the previous box, that they could figure out, oh, yeah, no, that one’s a screw, and it goes in the screw box, not the other box. And it turns out that even to do just these really, really simple things that we would really like to have artificial systems do, it’s really hard. And those are things that two-year-olds do really well. And we can think about what is it. On the other hand, the two-year-olds don’t get bored knowing how to put things in boxes. So what is it that they’ve got, what mechanisms do they have that could help us with some of these kinds of problems? And another example that we’ve been working on a lot with the Bay Area group is just vision. So just look at a screen with a lot of pixels, and make sense out of it. And as you probably know if you look at something like ImageNet, you can show, say, a deep learning system a whole lot of pictures of cats and dogs on the web, and eventually you’ll get it so that it can, most of the time, say this is the cat, and this is the dog. But then you can give it something that is just obviously not a cat or a dog, and they’ll make a mistake. And they won’t be able to generalize, even to say a dog on a video that’s actually moving. So even if you take something as simple as that you would like to have your systems actually — you’d like to have the computer in your car actually be able to identify this is a pedestrian or a car, it turns out that even those simple things involve abilities that we see in very young children that are actually quite hard to program into a computer. Some of the things that we’re looking at, for instance, is with children, when they’re learning to identify objects in the world, one thing they do is they pick them up and then they move around. Look at them from different angles, look at them from the top, look at them from the bottom, look at your hands this way, look at your hands that way. Walk around to the other side, pick things up and get into everything and make a terrible mess because you’re picking them up and throwing them around. But it turns out that may be just the kind of thing that you need to do, not to do anything fancy, just to have vision, just to be able to see the objects in the way that adults see the objects.

ezra klein

I think it’s a good place to come to a close. So, let me ask you a variation on what’s our final question. What are three children’s books you love and would recommend to the audience?

alison gopnik

Yeah, so I was thinking a lot about this, and I actually had converged on two children’s books. And then yesterday, I went to see my grandchildren for the first time in a year, my beloved grandchildren. And I was really pleased because my intuitions about the best books were completely confirmed by this great reunion with the grandchildren. So my five-year-old grandson, who hasn’t been in our house for a year, first said, I love you, grandmom, and then said, you know, grandmom, do you still have that book that you have at your house with the little boy who has this white suit, and he goes to the island with the monsters on it, and then he comes back again? And I said, you mean “Where the Wild Things Are”? And he said, that’s it, that’s the one with the wild things with the monsters. Do you still have that book? Could we read that book at your house? So I figure that’s a pretty serious endorsement when a five-year-old remembers something from a year ago. So that’s the first one, especially for the younger children. All of the Maurice Sendak books, but especially “Where the Wild Things Are” is a fantastic, wonderful book. And then for older children, that same day, my nine-year-old, who is very into the Marvel universe and superheroes, said, could we read a chapter from Mary Poppins, which is, again, something that grandmom reads. And we had a marvelous time reading Mary Poppins. And he said, the book is so much better than the movie. And he was absolutely right. And the reason is that when you actually read the Mary Poppins books, especially the later ones, like “Mary Poppins in the Park” and “Mary Poppins Opens the Door,” Mary Poppins is a much stranger, weirder, darker figure than Julie Andrews is. So if you’ve seen the movie, you have no idea what Mary Poppins is about. Essentially what Mary Poppins is about is this very strange, surreal set of adventures that the children are having with this figure, who, as I said to Augie, is much more like Iron Man or Batman or Doctor Strange than Julie Andrews, right? Who’s this powerful and mysterious, sometimes dark, but ultimately good, creature in your experience. So I keep thinking, oh, yeah, now what we really need to do is add Mary Poppins to the Marvel universe, and that would be a much better version. And let me give you a third book, which is much more obscure. There’s a book called “The Children of Green Knowe,” K-N-O-W-E. I like this because it’s a book about a grandmother and her grandson. And he comes to visit her in this strange, old house in the Cambridge countryside. And gradually, it gets to be clear that there are ghosts of the history of this house. And what I like about all three of these books, in their different ways, is that I think they capture this thing that’s so distinctive about childhood, the fact that on the one hand, you’re in this safe place. So with the Wild Things, he’s in his room, where mom is, where supper is going to be. And all the time, sitting in that room, he also adventures out in this boat to these strange places where wild things are, including he himself as a wild thing. And the same thing is true with Mary Poppins. So there are these children who are just leading this very ordinary British middle class life in the ’30s. And they’re going to the greengrocer and the fishmonger. And yet, there’s all this strangeness, this weirdness, the surreal things just about those everyday experiences. And the same way with “The Children of Green Knowe.” You’re going to visit your grandmother in her house in the country. And then it turns out that that house is full of spirits and ghosts and traditions and things that you’ve learned from the past. All three of those books really capture what’s special about childhood. It’s that combination of a small, safe world, and it’s actually having that small, safe world that lets you explore much wilder, crazier stranger set of worlds than any grown-up ever gets to.

ezra klein

Alison Gopnik, thank you very much.

alison gopnik

Thank you, Ezra. [MUSIC PLAYING]

ezra klein

Thank you to Alison Gopnik for being here. I’m going to keep it up with these little occasional recommendations after the show. I’m a writing nerd. I mean, obviously, I’m a writer, but I like writing software. When I went to Vox Media, partially I did that because of their great CMS or publishing software Chorus. And I’m always looking for really good clean composition apps. I find Word and Pages and Google Docs to be just horrible to write in. And having a good space to write in, it actually helps me think. But I found something recently that I like. And I’m not getting paid to promote them or anything, I just like it. It’s called Calmly Writer. You could just find it at calmywriter.com. And it’s the cleanest writing interface, simplest of these programs I found. So if you’re looking for a real lightweight, easy place to do some writing, Calmly Writer. But I’d be interested to hear what you all like because I’ve become a little bit of a nerd about these apps. That’s it for the show. Thank you for listening. As always, if you want to help the show out, leave us a review wherever you are listening to it now. Or send this episode to a friend, a family member, somebody you want to talk about it with. It really does help the show grow. “The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It is produced by Roge Karma and Jeff Geld; fact-checked by Michelle Harris; original music by Isaac Jones; and mixing by Jeff Geld. [MUSIC PLAYING]

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Credit…Illustration by The New York Times; Photograph by Kathleen King

“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Roge Karma and Jeff Geld; fact-checking by Michelle Harris; original music by Isaac Jones; mixing by Jeff Geld.

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