Dr. Spelke, Harvard - Insights In Human Knowledge


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What astounds me is that we inductively know this. Anyone that has looked in a child's eyes and watched him/her watch you move your thumb knows this.

When I am in a super market, or waiting for a bus and I make eye contact with a child, their intensity is so clear that you have to be a leftist to miss the incredible power of that child's mind in action.


“Why did it take me 30 years to start studying this?” she said. “All this time I’ve been giving infants objects to hold, or spinning them around in a room to see how they navigate, when what they really wanted to do was engage with other people!”
Dr. Spelke, 62, is tall and slim, and parts her long hair down the middle, like a college student. She dresses casually, in a corduroy jumper or a cardigan and slacks, and when she talks, she pitches forward and plants forearms on thighs, hands clasped, seeming both deeply engaged and ready to bolt. The lab she founded with her colleague
Susan Carey
is strewed with toys and festooned with children’s T-shirts, but the Elmo atmospherics belie both the lab’s seriousness of purpose and Dr. Spelke’s towering reputation among her peers in cognitive psychology.
“When people ask Liz, ‘What do you do?’ she tells them, ‘I study babies,’ ” said
Steven Pinker
, a fellow Harvard professor and the author of “
The Better Angels of Our Nature
,” among other books. “That’s endearingly self-deprecating, but she sells herself short.”
What Dr. Spelke is really doing, he said, is what Descartes, Kant and Locke tried to do. “She is trying to identify the bedrock categories of human knowledge. She is asking, ‘What is number, space, agency, and how does knowledge in each category develop from its minimal state?’ ”
Dr. Spelke studies babies not because they’re cute but because they’re root. “I’ve always been fascinated by questions about human cognition and the organization of the human mind,” she said, “and why we’re good at some tasks and bad at others.”


Here, according to the Spelke lab, are some of the things that babies know, generally before the age of 1:
They know what an object is: a discrete physical unit in which all sides move roughly as one, and with some independence from other objects.
“If I reach for a corner of a book and grasp it, I expect the rest of the book to come with me, but not a chunk of the table,” said
Phil Kellman
, Dr. Spelke’s first graduate student, now at the University of California, Los Angeles.
A baby has the same expectation. If you show the baby a trick sequence in which a rod that appears to be solid moves back and forth behind another object, the baby will gape in astonishment when that object is removed and the rod turns out to be two fragments.
“The visual system comes equipped to partition a scene into functional units we need to know about for survival,” Dr. Kellman said. Wondering whether your bag of four oranges puts you over the limit for the supermarket express lane? A baby would say, “You pick up the bag, the parts hang together, that makes it one item, so please get in line.”
Babies know, too, that objects can’t go through solid boundaries or occupy the same position as other objects, and that objects generally travel through space in a continuous trajectory. If you claimed to have invented a transporter device like the one in “Star Trek,” a baby would scoff.
Babies are born accountants. They can estimate quantities and distinguish between more and less. Show infants arrays of, say, 4 or 12 dots and they will match each number to an accompanying sound, looking longer at the 4 dots when they hear 4 sounds than when they hear 12 sounds, even if each of the 4 sounds is played comparatively longer. Babies also can perform a kind of addition and subtraction, anticipating the relative abundance of groups of dots that are being pushed together or pulled apart, and looking longer when the wrong number of dots appears.

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another "example" of the tabla raza. Humans come into the world "wired up" the ying yangs.

Ba'al Chatzaf

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Elizabeth Spelke was already a prominent developmental psychologist when I got my Ph. D.

That was quite a few years ago.

I guess the Times finds her work newsworthy now that she's at Harvard, rather than her previous stops: Penn, Cornell, or MIT.... For that matter, I wonder whether Pinker knew much about her work before she arrived in Cambridge, Mass.

Of course, newborn human babies aren't experiencing a bloomin', buzzin' confusion.

The main drawback to Spelke's work is her preferred manner of explaining her findings. A lot of Pennsylvania nativism (which was strongly influenced by Chomsky) rubbed off on her while she was there, and she got a booster shot of it at MIT.

What does it mean to claim that newborns already understand certain "principles"?

Robert Campbell

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Yeah Adam, I know us leftists miss the dazzling certainty of rightist reasoning... but how would leftism make us miss the intelligence of babies? I even noticed some in my own, and they are no geniuses, believe me.

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Carol and Robert:

Now you know that I recognize exceptions to the general rule on leftists...

We are all allowed a dash of hyperbole!


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