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In much the same way psychedelics have given Carhart-Harris an oblique angle from which to approach the phenomena of normal consciousness by exploring an altered state of it, Gopnik proposes we regard the mind of the young child as another kind of “altered state,” and in a number of respects it is a strikingly similar one. She cautions that our thinking about the subject is usually constrained by our own restricted experience of consciousness, which we naturally take to be the whole of it. In this case, most of the theories and generalizations about consciousness have been made by people who share a fairly limited subtype of it she calls “professor consciousness,” which she defines as “the phenomenology of your average middle-aged professor.”

“As academics, either we’re incredibly focused on a particular problem,” Gopnik told the audience of philosophers and neuroscientists in Tucson, “or we’re sitting there saying to ourselves, ‘Why can’t I focus on this problem I’m supposed to be focused on, and why instead am I daydreaming?’” Gopnik herself looks the part of a Berkeley professor in her early sixties, with her colorful scarves, flowing skirts, and sensible shoes. A child of the 1960s who is now a grandmother, she has a speaking style that is at once lighthearted and learned, studded with references indicating a mind as much at home in the humanities as the sciences.

“If you thought, as people often have thought, that this was all there was to consciousness . . . you might very well find yourself thinking that young children were actually less conscious than we were,” because both focused attention and self-reflection are absent in young children. Gopnik asks us to think about child consciousness in terms of not what’s missing from it or undeveloped but rather what is uniquely and wonderfully present—qualities that she believes psychedelics can help us to better appreciate and, possibly, reexperience.

In The Philosophical Baby, Gopnik draws a useful distinction between the “spotlight consciousness” of adults and the “lantern consciousness” of young children. The first mode gives adults the ability to narrowly focus attention on a goal. (In his own remarks, Carhart-Harris called this “ego consciousness” or “consciousness with a point.”) In the second mode—lantern consciousness—attention is more widely diffused, allowing the child to take in information from virtually anywhere in her field of awareness, which is quite wide, wider than that of most adults. (By this measure, children are more conscious than adults, rather than less.) While children seldom exhibit sustained periods of spotlight consciousness, adults occasionally experience that “vivid panoramic illumination of the everyday” that lantern consciousness affords us. To borrow Judson Brewer’s terms, lantern consciousness is expansive, spotlight consciousness narrow, or contracted.

The adult brain directs the spotlight of its attention where it will and then relies on predictive coding to make sense of what it perceives. This is not at all the child’s approach, Gopnik has discovered. Being inexperienced in the way of the world, the mind of the young child has comparatively few priors, or preconceptions, to guide her perceptions down the predictable tracks. Instead, the child approaches reality with the astonishment of an adult on psychedelics.

What this means for cognition and learning can be best understood by looking at machine learning, or artificial intelligence, Gopnik suggests. In teaching computers how to learn and solve problems, AI designers speak in terms of “high temperature” and “low temperature” searches for the answers to questions. A low-temperature search (so-called because it requires less energy) involves reaching for the most probable or nearest-to-hand answer, like the one that worked for a similar problem in the past. Low-temperature searches succeed more often than not. A high-temperature search requires more energy because it involves reaching for less likely but possibly more ingenious and creative answers—those found outside the box of preconception. Drawing on its wealth of experience, the adult mind performs low-temperature searches most of the time.

Gopnik believes that both the young child (five and under) and the adult on a psychedelic have a stronger predilection for the high-temperature search; in their quest to make sense of things, their minds explore not just the nearby and most likely but “the entire space of possibilities.” These high-temperature searches might be inefficient, incurring a higher rate of error and requiring more time and mental energy to perform. High-temperature searches can yield answers that are more magical than realistic. Yet there are times when hot searches are the only way to solve a problem, and occasionally they return answers of surpassing beauty and originality. E=mc2 was the product of a high-temperature search.

Gopnik has tested this hypothesis on children in her lab and has found that there are learning problems that four-year-olds are better at solving than adults. These are precisely the kinds of problems that require thinking outside the box, those times when experience hobbles rather than greases the gears of problem solving, often because the problem is so novel. In one experiment, she presented children with a toy box that lights up and plays music when a certain kind of block is placed on top of it. Normally, this “blicket detector” is set to respond to a single block of a certain color or shape, but when the experimenter reprograms the machine so that it responds only when two blocks are placed on it, four-year-olds figure it out much faster than adults do.

“Their thinking is less constrained by experience, so they will try even the most unlikely possibilities”; that is, they’ll conduct lots of high-temperature searches, testing the most far-out hypotheses. “Children are better learners than adults in many cases when the solutions are nonobvious” or, as she puts it, “further out in the space of possibilities,” a realm where they are more at home than we are. Far out, indeed.

“We have the longest childhood of any species,” Gopnik says. “This extended period of learning and exploration is what’s distinctive about us. I think of childhood as the R&D stage of the species, concerned exclusively with learning and exploring. We adults are production and marketing.” Later I asked her if she meant to say that children perform R&D for the individual, not the species, but in fact she meant exactly what she said.

“Each generation of children confronts a new environment,” she explained, “and their brains are particularly good at learning and thriving in that environment. Think of the children of immigrants, or four-year-olds confronted with an iPhone. Children don’t invent these new tools, they don’t create the new environment, but in every generation they build the kind of brain that can best thrive in it. Childhood is the species’ ways of injecting noise into the system of cultural evolution.” “Noise,” of course, is in this context another word for “entropy.”

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