Monday, September 23, 2013

Weird neuropsychology

Alison Gopnik is a psychologist and the author of an acclaimed book, The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us about Truth, Love & the Meaning of Life (plus a few other books on how babies think). Two years ago she also gave a TED talk dramatizing some of her own findings and those of fellow child psychologists. In much of the talk, she explains (with some striking examples) how babies and small children are much cleverer that they are usually given credit for, to the point of engaging in some protoscientific thinking (with a penchant for hypothesis testing, etc.). At some point, though, she makes an even bolder claim. She says babies and children are, in fact, even more conscious than adults. And she offers a simple neuroscientific explanation for this counterintuitive juvenile advantage.

In Gopnik’s view, adult consciousness works like a spotlight – it typically deploys a “very focused, purpose-driven kind of attention.” And once the adult mind focuses on this or that very intensely, “everything else goes dark.” Why is adult consciousness so narrow and prone to tunnel vision? Once the prefrontal cortex of an adult is activated, it shuts down activity in much of the rest of the brain (I guess she refers to what neuroscientists call the “default network” of the brain which is involved a more holistic, intuitive, emotionally-colored neural processing). Babies and young children, on the other hand, seem blessed with “more of a lantern of consciousness” as opposed to the spotlight version adults have developed. Since their prefrontal cortices are less mature, and inhibitory processes in their brains are weaker, “they are very good at taking in lots of information from lots of different sources.

Gopnik’s point about the upside of less focused attention is quite refreshing. But I am afraid her perspective itself might be a good illustration of the limitations she attributes to adult consciousness. There are in fact experiments demonstrating that the intense focus she describes is not a human universal. For example, when American and Asian students are asked to look at a picture, there is a marked difference in the ways they perceive it. Most Americans do tend to focus on the central object, and to recall later more details related to it as opposed to the background. Asians, meanwhile, typically have the opposite tendency. So Gopnik might have partly fallen in the trap now known as the WEIRD problem in psychology and neuroscience – the reliance of these fields on test subjects from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic countries (many of them college students, who tend to be even bigger outliers as compared to the general population); and the tendency of Western researchers to attribute universal validity to the statistically significant findings they reach working with such culturally, psychologically, and neurophysiologically atypical human material.