Babies: Empty Vessels or Learning Machines?

Babies are born completely unskilled and dependent. They can’t speak or understand language. They are nearsighted, able to see only see shapes, light, and motion. They can’t even support their own heads. It’s a long row to hoe for them to acquire the huge volume of physical and mental skills and knowledge that we adults use automatically every day. Compared to a fawn, for example, that can stand up within minutes of birth, human newborns are incredibly helpless.

As a society, despite how much we cherish and adore our kids, we don’t have very high expectations when it comes to what they can learn from birth to about age five.We speak very slowly and repetitively or coo at them in nonsensical baby talk—and we do this well past infancy. We reinforce their babyish identities when we say, “We go bye-bye,” or “You want ba-ba?” We buy all kinds of doodads, toys, and electronic gadgets that we think they need to supplement their brain power. We don’t realize it, but we don’t really respect their ability to learn, and thus, we set the bar for learning pretty low. 

In terms of knowledge, infants start out in life as nearly empty vessels. They’re poorly equipped with the physical and mental knowledge they’ll need to survive and thrive independently. Looked at in a positive light, we might see these empty vessels as ready and waiting to be filled with skills and abilities. Instead, we seem to have an unconscious cultural bias that infants and young kids are slow or unprepared for education—and must be forcibly taught the process starting in elementary school. We respond to these perceived needs with a snail’s pace of instruction that matches what we think are the appropriate developmental stages. 

Maybe we’ve got it backward. Perhaps the dearth of knowledge in the first five years is mitigated by an abundant capacity to learn. Research in recent decades indicates this may well be the case. What humans lack at birth in know-how is counterbalanced by the brain’s enormous learning potential in those very early years. 

It’s a potential we’re just beginning to understand. Some brain researchers theorize that babies are born at such an immature stage because a fully developed human brain would make the head too big to pass through the birth canal. Instead, they believe learning capacity—the developmental instruction sheet, so to speak—is coded into the DNA to launch into full gear immediately at birth. If that’s the case, it’s biologically ingenious! 

There’s no doubt that babies are essentially learning machines. Everything they do from the moment of birth onward is geared toward consuming massive amounts of information and processing it quickly. Their minds must learn to interpret their environment, and their bodies must learn to adapt to the rapid changes of physical development. When you’re lying in a crib watching a mobile at three months, the world is a totally different place than when you’re riding a tricycle at three years. 

Just think about all the learning that had to happen for a baby to transform from a state of complete helplessness to a child who can easily coordinate riding a trike. There is nothing in adulthood, or even older childhood and adolescence, that compares to this staggering rate of growth and development. And it’s all due to the vast learning ability of the brain at this point in life. From zero to five, a child’s primary job is to figure out the world around him or her. Most little kids are naturals at the job, vastly better than adults would be in a parallel situation. Children learn and grow because they can; their brains are made for the job. 

Imagine that you were whisked off to another planet where the language, culture, and terrain were completely alien. How long would you take to understand that world? Can you conceive of what it would be like to look at an alien landscape, hear unrecognizable sounds, and not have the faintest clue what was happening? Most of us would probably want to cower in a corner, and we’d take years to adjust to such radical change—if we ever did. Yet that’s what a baby experiences in the first months and years of life. It’s new. It’s foreign. It’s intense. But babies handle it because they can. Their brains are designed to meet the challenge. To paraphrase Springsteen: Baby, we were born to learn.