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When children are more intelligent than adults are: Theory formation, causal models, and the evolution of learning.

18 May 2017

A public lecture with Professor Alison Gopnik (Berkeley)


In the past 15 years, we have discovered that even young children are adept at inferring causal relationship. But are there differences in the ways that younger children, older children and adults learn? And do socioeconomic status and culture make a difference? I will present several studies showing a surprising pattern. Not only can preschoolers learn abstract higher-order principles from data, but younger learners are actually better at inferring unusual or unlikely principles than older learners and adults. This pattern also holds for children in Peru and in Headstart programs in Oakland, California. I relate this pattern to computational ideas about search and sampling, to evolutionary ideas about human life history, and to neuroscience findings about the negative effects of frontal control on wide exploration.  My hypothesis is that our distinctively long, protected human childhood allows an early period of broad hypothesis search, exploration and creativity, before the demands of goal-directed action set in.


Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. She received her BA from McGill University and her PhD from Oxford University. She is an internationally recognized leader in the study of children’s learning and development and was the first to argue that children’s minds could help us understand deep philosophical questions. She is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal. She is the author of over 100 journal articles and several books including Words, Thoughts and Theories (coauthored with Andrew Meltzoff; MIT Press, 1997),  and the bestselling and critically acclaimed popular books, The Scientist in the Crib (coauthored with Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl; William Morrow, 1999), The Philosophical Baby; What Children’s Minds Tell Us about Love, Truth and the Meaning of Life (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2009), and “The. She has also written widely about cognitive science and psychology for Science, The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, New Scientist and Slate, among others.  And she has frequently appeared on TV and radio including “The Charlie Rose Show” and “The Colbert Report”.

This public lecture will be held at the Winstanley Lecture Theatre, Trinity College, Cambridge and tickets are available here.