Travel and the baby brain

Noa, baby of wonder

Taking "baby consciousness" with us (Photo by Julien Haler)

The longer the childhood, the smarter the creature. That’s one of science’s core findings about the development of the baby brain as reported by psychologist Alison Gopnik in her recent TED talk, “What Do Babies Think?“. Humans, who take years to mature, construct cities, which chickens, which take months, wind up in soup.

Gopnik calls it “baby consciousness,” a phrase so giddily Zen it makes me giggle. It’s a development-specific mindset we lose as we grow and our heads are no longer stuffed full of tapioca. People peg toddlers as daft and scatterbrained, and it’s hard not to agree with that assessment when you observe a two-year-old do things like throw dried dog poo at the wall or try to fit a sandwich in the DVD player drawer.

But Gopnik, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and the co-author of The Scientist in the Crib, says the truth about baby brains is just the opposite: “Babies and young children are very bad at narrowing down to just one thing, but they are very good at taking in lots of information at lots of different sources at once… When we say babies and young children are bad at paying attention, what we’re really saying is they’re bad at not paying attention.”

They’re starstruck with all the things there are to see and process. They’re high on learning. They’re in that deliciously primordial state that travelers know well, when everything is fresh and even meaningless details are noticed and interpreted.

There’s something to be said for this. When we go to a new place, our frame of reference is reset to zero. We bring with us our animal instincts for survival, of course. Even toddlers are self-protective. But everything we experience becomes a teachable moment.

Kids on Fort Sumter Ferry

Wide open, soaking it in: Fort Sumter Ferry, Charleston, 2011

Our gullible states are never higher than when we’re traveling. I remember dining once with some fellow writers at The Cricketers, a country pub owned by Jamie Oliver’s family, and after the meal, the waitress had a quirky way of serving tea. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but for the story’s sake, let’s say it involved wiping every exposed surface of the teapot with a moist rag after every single pour. Well, one of my companions was a first-time visitor to England, and when the waitress left the room, she leaned over and piped up conspiratorially: “They sure do pour tea funny here in England,” she protested, and took a sip. It took some minutes for me to politely persuade her that, no, what she had just witnessed was the peculiarity of one near-freak server at one country inn and was not representative of an entire nationality. The realization of her broad-stroke misinterpretation slowly lit her face like the dawn.

When we travel, our mind state tricks us into thinking everything we see is somehow typical of the new place we’re exploring. The stereotype of tourists as gullible morons, as infants with credit cards, is by no means particular to Americans because it’s well-earned by the borderlessness of human behavior. It’s what potentially makes travelers so annoying — and easy to swindle.

Try it the next time a visitor comes to your town. Invent some myth about your home that would make a fabulist blush: that there’s an Italian Heritage parade down your Main Street every Sunday afternoon or there’s a law making it illegal to serve steak with A-1 sauce — whatever Mike Daisey-ism you dare. Because everything about the destination is new to a tourist, just as the entire world is fresh to a baby, they will most likely trust you, their host and surrogate parent.

Travel regresses us to childhood. Is it any wonder that so many of us travel in our 20s, when we’ve just left that larval childhood stage but have not yet grown into the ill-fitting uniform of full adulthood? Is it any wonder so many travelers put a high priority on intensely sensory experiences such as drinking, sex, panoramic views, and extreme sports — pursuits that please our primal natures?

Gopnik knocks her point home in a way that make me think of a backpack as the next logical accessory after diapers:

If we want to think about a way of getting a taste of that kind of baby consciousness as adults, I think the best thing is think cases where we’re put into a new situation that we’ve never been in before. When we fall in love with someone new, or when we’re in a new city for the first time. What happens then is not that our consciousness contracts — it expands. So that those three days in Paris seem to be more full of consciousness and experience than all the months of being a walking, talking, faculty meeting-attending zombie back home…. So what’s it like to be a baby? It’s like being in love in Paris for the first time after you’ve had three double espressos.

Personally, I’m for it. Peace and wisdom flower in an open mind. We travel to grow.

Hold onto that wonder, travelers. Always see the world with your baby brains.

Jason Cochran with Mickey Mouse

Vacation as never-ending childhood: I rest my case