The Intellectual Wonderland of Dr. Alison Gopnik

Berkeley evolutionary psychologist Alison Gopnik, author of “The Gardener and the Carpenter,” is photographed at home in Berkeley, Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)

Dr. Alison Gopnik is inspired by the scientific vision of young children. Without the preconceptions, the extensive set of cognitive heuristics, and the rigid approaches to problem-solving we adopt in adulthood, children see the world with a sense of exploration. Dr. Gopnik and her colleagues have shown young children to be incredible problem-solvers, creative theoreticians, and collectors of data at a level aspired to by the best researchers! All that while rocking a onesy. While Dr. Gopnik’s researchhas been instrumental in advancing our understanding of children’s minds and their cognitive capacities, her scope has been quite broad. From popular writing and talks on parenting to the philosophy of science and cognition, Dr. Gopnik has been an important voice in academic journals, TED talks, in popular press essays, and general audience books.

Dr. Gopnik introduces herself in this first excerpt:

Now a professor of Psychology at the University of California – Berkeley, Dr. Gopnik has written candidly about her early life, growing up in a “mid-century modern” home as the child of two university professors. While the settings and aspirations of her family were somewhat typical of immigrant Jewish families in the mid-1950’s, there was also much that was exceptional.

In this next excerpt, she describes her family in those early years. Her parents, Drs. Myrna and Irwin Gopnik, made their journeys through grad school at University of Pennsylvania and on to their professorial appointments at McGill University while growing to a family of six children.

Foreshadowing that Alison would grow up study children, it may be notable that she often was tasked with caring for her younger siblings in her early life. Moreover, it may be no surprise that Dr. Gopnik’s research has been innovative demonstrating the intellectual brilliance of children as scientists and theorists. In the sophisticated, intellectual world of the Gopniks in which the children were raised with the works of Bertolt Brecht, Henry Fielding, and Jean Racine perhaps young Alison was sensitized to the potential cognitive depth of, even, very young children.

In this excerpt, she also describes some of the difficulty faced by her mother as she advanced through graduate school. For Dr. Myrna Gopnik her brilliance and intellectual performance with graduate school assessments were unimpeachable, and yet she was initially failed by her committee. In that era, her committee simply saw no future for her in academia since she had become a mother.  Clearly their prognostication was wrong, and Myrna Gopnik not only re-completed their assessments,  but went on to a brilliant career in linguistics. As those involved in psychogenetics, speech, and linguistics will undoubtedly recognize, Myrna Gopnik is known for her seminal research with the KE family. That research helped scientists isolate the FOXP2 gene, a critical mechanism thought to support language development.

The Gopnik parents relocated their family to Montreal as they began their careers at McGill University. Montreal offered a progressive and intellectual counter-culture and the opportunity for incredible educational advancement for Alison and her siblings.

In this next excerpt, Dr. Gopnik recalls some of her experience entering university life as a 15-year old first-year student:

In childhood Alison was drawn to philosophy and had loved reading Plato.  Consequently, she had worked out a deal with her brother Adam: he could move to Paris and be the great literary figure and she would move to England to be the master of science and philosophy!  Through a twist of bureaucracy, and the limitless ambitions of the Gopniks, Alison was not only a 15-year freshman, but she was a 15-year old taking graduate seminars, and charging forward into empirical approaches to philosophy!

As per the agreement with her brother, Alison sighted her ambitions on being an empirically-minded philosopher. With that certainly, she set forth on graduate school and the clear vision that she would become a professor. She finished her Philosophy major and, as it happened, had in the process also aced through course every advanced course available to her in Psychology in her attempt to learn more empiricism. She might not have intended a Psychology major, but there it was all but completed as she dove deeply into her interests. At age 20, Alison graduated with great distinction from McGill U, a double-major in Philosophy and Psychology.

She moved forward  with her childhood plan, and soon was headed to graduate school to study at Oxford University. Actually, that’s not quite right. She accepted an offer to study philosophy at MIT with Jerry Fodor — a prime opportunity to progress in her goal to become a philosopher with strong empirical interests. A little bit of travel would soon alter her plans. Over that summer before grad school, she visited Oxford, and was swept away by the romance and grandeur of its pastoral setting. In addition, over that summer she received a acceptance letter from Oxford’s Psychology program.  How could she resist the settings of Lewis Carroll, of Jane Austin that she had so adored in her childhood? New plan. Defer MIT and that philosophy doctorate and instead take a year to study Psychology at Oxford.  It’s only a year, right? She struck out for England and Psychology to work with the esteemed developmental Psychologist Jerome Bruner in a richly philosophical program. Alas, one year soon became more and she completed her doctoral degree in that program. Still with a passion for philosophy, Dr. Gopnik began to honed her intellectual attention on cognitive science and developmental processes of Psychology. 

In this next excerpt, she describes some of her experience at Oxford and moving into her research with developmental psychology:

In grad school Alison could fluidly move between worlds: mothers and families up the hill, and down the hill to philosophy on the banks of the Thames. She began an extremely ambitious project — would you expect anything less? For her thesis, Alison would track language develop in multiple babies for an entire year. Complete with recordings, analysis, and deep consideration of how language (as a reflection of thought) might emerge.

She recalled some of that data collection and how it changed her own ideas in this next excerpt:

There Alison was. A hardcore nativist. A developmental psychologist without much background in Piaget and his cognitive-developmental stages. And a student with an ambitious, growing data set as she visited her set of babies every single week over the course of a year to track their language development. One also notes that during this period in the mid-1970’s she met Dr. Andrew Meltzhoff and started an incredibly fruitful long-term collaboration.  She reflected on her new observations, her conversations with Meltzhoff, and began to emerge with new constructivist ideas that would shape her future innovations in the understanding of cognitive development.

Dr. Meltzhoff started a position at the University of Washington (Seattle) as Dr. Gopnik completed her degree at Oxford (navigating pregnancy, new parenthood, orals, her thesis). She reflects on this part of her intellectual journey as one of the most incredibly productive and enriching periods of her life.  After completion of her degree, in 1981 she did a post-doc at OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education), which was soon followed with her first professorial appointment at the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus (Toronto, CA). Even as both Drs. Gopnik and Meltzhoff forged their own careers and paradigms, they continued working in collaboration. In Seattle, Dr. Meltzhoff fostered a large and active pool of young children and families for involvement with research and Dr. Gopnik would visit her friend and collaborator periodically to continue data collection with this pool.

As described in this next excerpt, Dr. Gopnik recalled her continued collaboration with Meltzhoff leading to this new theoretical position that would figure prominently in her career:

These are the kinds of stories I love the most! Not only did she give us additional background on running those intensive, longitudinal studies — requiring her involvement over weeks and months with the development of these young children — but she also gave us insight on the theory.  It is easy to imagine: her and Meltzhoff in the park. Chatting  and planning.  They notice this baby, this 15-mos old child and observe. Meticulously, but unobtrusively, they track all of this babies actions. There are investigations and discoveries, amazements and new ideas, brimming from this baby over the course of the next hour. The data from the lab and close observations from Dr. Gopnik running every single participant, are now applied in the case of this random baby at the park. Theory, data, application: it all coalesces as Drs.  Gopnik and Meltzhoff continue in this new constructivism. It isn’t Chomsky, it isn’t Piaget. It is something new that posits children as investigators, scientists of an as yet unknown domain.

Over the course of a tremendous career, this theory is developed and Dr. Gopnik’s research program expands. She innovates new paradigms to be able to test this scientific method of babies without relying on language. There is much more to Dr. Gopnik’s career and in my conversation with her. I look forward to sharing much more in the book!

You can learn much more about Dr. Gopnik and her impressive scholarship at her website. Here are some of the wonderful publications from Dr. Gopnik:

Gopnik, A. (1988). Conceptual and semantic development as theory change: The case of object permanence. Mind & Language3(3), 197-216.

Gopnik, A. (1993). How we know our minds: The illusion of first-person knowledge of intentionalityBehavioral and Brain sciences16(1), 1-14.

Gopnik, A. (1996). The scientist as childPhilosophy of science63(4), 485-514.

Gopnik, A. (1998). Explanation as orgasmMinds and machines8(1), 101-118.

Gopnik, A. (2012). Scientific thinking in young children: Theoretical advances, empirical research, and policy implicationsScience337(6102), 1623-1627.

Gopnik, A., & Astington, J. W. (1988). Children’s understanding of representational change and its relation to the understanding of false belief and the appearance-reality distinction. Child Development, 26-37.

Gopnik, A., & Choi, S. (1995). Names, relational words, and cognitive development in English and Korean speakers: Nouns are not always learned before verbs. In M. Tomasello & W. E. Merriman (Eds.), Beyond names for things: Young children’s acquisition of verbs (pp. 63-80). Hillsdale, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Gopnik, A., & Graf, P. (1988). Knowing how you know: Young children’s ability to identify and remember the sources of their beliefsChild Development, 1366-1371.

Gopnik, A., Glymour, C., Sobel, D. M., Schulz, L. E., Kushnir, T., & Danks, D. (2004). A Theory of Causal Learning in Children: Causal Maps and Bayes NetsPsychological Review, 111(1), 3-32.

Gopnik, A., & Meltzoff, A. N. (1984). Semantic and cognitive development in 15-to 21-month-old childrenJournal of Child Language11(3), 495-513.

Gopnik, A., & Meltzoff, A. N. (1986). Relations between semantic and cognitive development in the one-word stage: The specificity hypothesisChild Development, 1040-1053.

Gopnik, A., & Meltzoff, A. (1987). The development of categorization in the second year and its relation to other cognitive and linguistic developmentsChild Development, 1523-1531.

Gopnik, A., & Meltzoff, A. N. (1994). Minds, bodies, and persons: Young children’s understanding of the self and others as reflected in imitation and theory of mind research. In S. T. Parker, R. W. Mitchell, & M. L. Boccia (Eds.), Self-awareness in animals and humans: Developmental perspectives (pp. 166-186). New York, NY, US: Cambridge University Press.

Gopnik, A., & Meltzoff, A. N. (1997). Words, Thoughts, and Theories. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Gopnik, A., Meltzoff, A. N., & Kuhl, P. K. (1999). The scientist in the crib: Minds, brains, and how children learn. New York, NY, US: William Morrow & Co.

Gopnik, A., & Schulz, L. (2004). Mechanisms of theory formation in young childrenTrends in Cognitive Sciences8(8), 371-377.

Gopnik, A., & Schulz, L. E. (Eds.). (2007). Causal learning: Psychology, philosophy, and computation. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Gopnik, A., & Slaughter, V. (1991). Young children’s understanding of changes in their mental states. Child Development62(1), 98-110.

Gopnik, A., & Sobel, D. M. (2000). Detecting blickets: How young children use information about novel causal powers in categorization and inductionChild Development71(5), 1205-1222.

Gopnik, A., Sobel, D. M., Schulz, L. E., & Glymour, C. (2001). Causal learning mechanisms in very young children: Two-, three-, and four-year-olds infer causal relations from patterns of variation and covariationDevelopmental Psychology, 37(5), 620-629.

Gopnik, A., & Wellman, H. M. (1992). Why the child’s theory of mind really is a theory. Mind & Language7(1‐2), 145-171.

Gopnik, A., & Wellman, H. M. (2012). Reconstructing constructivism: Causal models, Bayesian learning mechanisms, and the theory theoryPsychological Bulletin, 138(6), 1085-1108.

Repacholi, B. M., & Gopnik, A. (1997). Early reasoning about desires: Evidence from 14- and 18-month-oldsDevelopmental Psychology, 33(1), 12-21.

(Photo credit to Kristopher Skinner)

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