How Babies Think

Interesting article summarizing some current research on how infants experience their environment.

From the abstract:

  • Babies’ and young children’s cognitive abilities far surpass those that psychologists long attributed to them. They can, for instance, imagine another person’s experiences and grasp cause and effect.
  • Children learn about the world much as scientists do—in effect, conducting experiments, analyzing statistics and forming theories to account for their observations.
  • The long helplessness of babies may be an evolutionary trade-off, a necessary consequence of having brains wired for prodigious feats of learning and creativity.

Link to article in Scientific American Magazine

I also highly recommend the documentary:

Babies“, Focus Features.

It follows four infants from four very different cultures: San Francisco, Tokyo, Mongolia and Sub-Saharan Africa during their first 24 months of life. There is no commentary, just observations of how environment and social norms interact with our genetically given developmental trajectory, letting the video, and the babies, speak for themselves. The sub-Saharan child follows a developmental trajectory which all of our ancestors followed for perhaps 200,000 generations, the Mongolian child perhaps 600 generations and the two westernized children perhaps 50 to 1-2 generations. Observing their reflex responses, the genetically encoded tools they have for responding to stress in their surroundings, it is revealed how the background of our modern lifestyles is disconnected from our capacity to manage fight / flight / freeze responses. On the other hand, the hand / eye, cognitive development in the westernized kids takes off. Hopefully the documentary will offer some cues for more fully integrating our genetically programmed responses.

How To Grow A Mind
Perhaps the best way we have to understand how a system functions which we cannot take apart, like our brains, is to model it. If we can get the model to respond to stimuli in the way the system does, we have attained some understanding of the system. It may not be perfect, or even very accurate, but will deliver up many insights which most likely will move us toward a more accurate understanding of the system in question. One of the best tools for brain modelling is Artificial Intelligence(AI). As AI more closely mimics brain responses, we develop a better understanding of cognitive processes. The link below is to a report in March 11 Science Magazine on this subject. It is heavy lifting, and if you were traumatized by statistics in school, you may need to hold your ESR points, which I think I did. This research does shed some illumination on the mystery of the nature of cognition and how the relationship between abstract and concrete knowledge assembles a powerful decision making machine.

Here is the forward:
In coming to understand the world—in learning concepts, acquiring language, and grasping causal relations—our minds make inferences that appear to go far beyond the data available. How do we do it? This review describes recent approaches to reverse-engineering human learningand cognitive development and, in parallel, engineering more humanlike machine learning systems. Computational models that perform probabilistic inference over hierarchies of flexibly structured representations can address some of the deepest questions about the nature and origins of human thought: How does abstract knowledge guide learning and reasoning from sparse data? What forms does our knowledge take, across different domains and tasks? And how is that abstract knowledge itself acquired?

How to Grow a Mind: Statistics, Structure, and Abstraction