The Scientist in the Crib Chapter One

Ancient Questions and a Young Science

Walk upstairs, open the door gently, and look in the crib. What do you see? Most of us see a picture of innocence and helplessness, a clean slate. But, in fact, what we see in the crib is the greatest mind that has ever existed, the most powerful learning machine in the universe. The tiny fingers and mouth are exploration devices that probe the alien world around them with more precision than any Mars rover. The crumpled ears take a buzz of incomprehensible noise and flawlessly turn it into meaningful language. The wide eyes that sometimes seem to peer into your very soul actually do just that, deciphering your deepest feelings. The downy head surrounds a brain that is forming millions of new connections every day. That, at least, is what thirty years of scientific research have told us.

This book is about that research. What are these deeply familiar yet surprisingly strange creatures we call children really like? Of course, human beings have always wondered, pondered, and even agonized about their children. But most of the time, the questions people ask are practical. Some are immediate, questions about how to get them to eat more or cry less. Some are long-term, questions about how to turn them into the right kind of grownups. These are important questions, crucial for the survival of any civilization (not to mention any parent), but we won't have very much to say about them. This book won't tell you how to make babies easier or smarter or nicer, or how to get them to go to sleep or to Harvard. There are lots of books that do that, or anyway say they do, right between the cooking and house repairs sections in your local bookstore. Our questions are both harder and easier than the practical questions. We want to understand children, not renovate them.

While the purported answers to the practical questions fill volumes, all of us who have lived with babies and young children, or even just looked at them, have found ourselves asking deeper questions. We decided to become developmental psychologists and study children because there aren't any Martians. These brilliant beings with the little bodies and big heads are the closest we can get to a truly alien intelligence (even if we may occasionally suspect that they are bent on making us their slaves). Babies are fascinating, mysterious, and just plain weird. Watch awhile. A three-month-old catches sight of the stripes on a shopping bag and follows it carefully as her father carries it around the room, staring with intense cross-eyed concentration. A one-year-old visiting the zoo points at the elephant and says triumphantly and with great certainty, "Doggie!" A "terrible two-year-old" turns toward the expressly forbidden switch of the computer and slowly, deliberately, watching his mother every moment, erases the day's work. As we change diapers and wipe noses, all of us, no matter how preoccupied, find ourselves exclaiming, "What's going on in that little head of hers? Where on earth did he get that from?"

Developmental psychologists have had the luxury of asking those questions systematically and even getting answers to them. We're actually starting to understand what's going on in that little head of hers and where on earth he got that from.

Studying babies is full of fascination in its own right. But developmental research also helps answer a more general, deep, and ancient question, not just about babies but about us. We human beings, no more than a few pounds of protein and water, have come to understand the origins of the universe, the nature of life, and even a few things about ourselves. No other animal, and not even the most sophisticated computer, knows as much. And yet every one of us started out as the helpless creature in the crib. Only a few tiny flickers of information from the outside world reach that creature--a few photons hitting its retinas, some sound waves vibrating at its eardrums--and yet we end up knowing how the world works. How do we do it? How did we get here from there?

The new research about babies holds answers to those questions, too. It turns out that the capacities that allow us to learn about the world and ourselves have their origins in infancy. We are born with the ability to discover the secrets of the universe and of our own minds, and with the drive to explore and experiment until we do. Science isn't just the specialized province of a chilly elite; instead, it's continuous with the kind of learning every one of us does when we're very small.

Trying to understand human nature is part of human nature. Developmental scientists are themselves engaged in the same enterprise and use the same cognitive tools as the babies they study. The scientist peering into the crib, looking for answers to some of the deepest questions about how minds and the world and language work, sees the scientist peering out of the crib, who, it turns out, is doing much the same thing. No wonder they both smile.