University of Minnesota
School of Physics & Astronomy

History of Science and Technology/Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science Colloquium

Friday, September 22nd 2017
Speaker: Alison Gopnik, Department of Psychology, University of California - Berkeley
Subject: When Children are Better Learners than Adults: Theory Formation, Causal Models, and the Evolution of Learning
Refreshments served at 3:15 p.m.

In the past 15 years, we have discovered that even young children are adept at inferring causal relationships and that they do so in much the same way as scientists, using causal models and inductive inference to construct intuitive theories of the world. 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.

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