Those few intensely alive days

According to Alison Gopnik

[W]hen we are faced with the unfamiliar, when we fall in love with someone new, or when we travel to a new place, our consciousness of what is around us and inside us suddenly becomes far more vivid and intense. In fact, we are willing to expend lots of money, and lots of emotional energy, for those few intensely alive days in Paris or Beijing that we will remember long after months of everyday life have vanished.


I believe, but cannot prove, that babies and young children are actually more conscious, more vividly aware of their external world and internal life, than adults are. I believe this because there is strong evidence for a functional trade-off with development. Young children are much better than adults at learning new things and flexibly changing what they think about the world. On the other hand, they are much worse at using their knowledge to act in a swift, efficient and automatic way. They can learn three languages at once but they can’t tie their shoelaces.

This trade-off makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Our species relies more on learning than any other, and has a longer childhood than any other. Human childhood is a protected period in which we are free to learn without being forced to act.


We sometimes say that adults are better at paying attention than children, but really we mean just the opposite. Adults are better at not paying attention. They’re better at screening out everything else and restricting their consciousness to a single focus.

Update: For more on Gopnik’s research, see To Be a Baby, whose deck is

Alison Gopnik describes new experiments in developmental psychology that show everything we think we know about babies is wrong.

A negative review of her new book is here. A more positive review here.

Amazing babies: a talk with Alison Gopnik.


1 Comment

  1. According to Michaeal Jawer

    One might even argue that other mammals are more aware of feelings than human beings are, because they possess a ‘primary’ form of consciousness: they are aware of themselves and their environment but less burdened by complexities such as reflection and rumination that typify human consciousness. They live closer to the bone, one might say, than we do.

    One animal behavioralist, Jeffrey Masson, has remarked that animals possess feelings of “undiluted purity and clarity” – at least at times – compared to the “seeming opacity and inaccessibility of human feelings.” A former psychoanalyst, he wonders if the human ego doesn’t get in the way of our experiencing feelings as directly and undistilled as other creatures do.


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