The Innate Ability To Learn

My friend Nicholas Day, who wrote the wonderful book Baby Meets World (the smartest and funniest book on infants I’ve ever read) has a really interesting new column on Slate about how babies learn—specifically, how they figure out that other people have intentions that motivate their actions.

He focuses on the work of Amanda Woodward, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, quoting her as saying: “You might think that babies start with a kind of crude expectation—that anything a person does is probably goal-directed.”

But in fact, she has discovered, this is something babies have to figure out for themselves through observation and interaction. They do so remarkably rapidly, within the first year of life. This discovery surprised Woodward, as Nick explains:

“She’d done postdoctoral work with Elizabeth Spelke, [a developmental psychologist at Harvard] who revolutionized infancy research with her theory of infant core knowledge—the idea that we are born with innate capacities that we get for free.

‘I assumed that this piece of social knowledge would look just like the rest of infant core knowledge, that it wouldn’t depend on experience,’ Woodward says. ‘And so I was initially frustrated at why only older babies would pass my measures [of the recognition of goal-directedness].’ It turned out that before they could pass, they’d had to study up: They had spent their brief time in the world cramming.

The idea that babies can be smart and still need to study shouldn’t be surprising. But it is. ‘Bizarrely, in the history of the field, there’s been this conjunction of If learning is important, babies must not be smart, and If babies are smart, learning must not be important,’ Woodward says. ‘It’s just a logical fallacy.’ Babies have to be smart in order to learn what they do.

Innateness now dominates the popular understanding of infancy, and clearly infants have extraordinary inborn knowledge. As innumerable studies have now proved, babies can think in very sophisticated, abstract ways.

But we don’t get everything for free. As a parent, I find this warp-speed learning even more marvelous than innateness. It’s wonderful to watch my infant son and know that he is multitasking: He is drooling and deciphering the foundations of human social life. He is learning things that I didn’t even know I knew.” (Read more here.)

This is such a sophisticated and important point, and one that applies to older children and adults as well: Humans have an innate capacity to learn, and it’s this combination of hard-wired learning ability and the environmentally-influenced way we use it that accounts for our marvelous mental agility.

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