The J Curve

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Celebrate the Child-Like Mind

Celebrate immaturity. Play every day. Fail early and often.

From what I can see, the best scientists and engineers nurture a child-like mind. They are playful, open minded and unrestrained by the inner voice of reason, collective cynicism, or fear of failure.

On Thursday, I went to a self-described "play-date" at David Kelley's house. The founder of IDEO is setting up an interdisciplinary "D-School" for design and creativity at Stanford. David and Don Norman noted that creativity is killed by fear, referencing experiments that contrast people’s approach to walking along a balance beam flat on the ground (playful and expressive) and then suspended in the air (fearful and rigid). They are hosting an open conference on Saturday, appropriately entitled The Power of Play.

In science, meaningful disruptive innovation occurs at the inter-disciplinary interstices between formal academic disciplines. Perhaps the D-school will go further, to “non-disciplined studies” – stripped of systems vernacular, stricture, and the constraints of discipline.

What is so great about the “child-like” mind? Looking across the Bay to Berkeley, I highly recommend Alison Gopnik’s Scientist in the Crib to any geek about to have a child. Here is one of her key conclusions: "Babies are just plain smarter than we are, at least if being smart means being able to learn something new.... They think, draw conclusions, make predictions, look for explanations and even do experiments…. In fact, scientists are successful precisely because they emulate what children do naturally."

Much of the human brain’s power derives from its massive synaptic interconnectivity. I spoke with Geoffrey West from the Santa Fe Institute last night. He observed that across species, synapses/neuron fan-out grows as a power law with brain mass.

At the age of 2 to 3 years old, children hit their peak with 10x the synapses and 2x the energy burn of an adult brain. And it’s all downhill from there.

Cognitive Decline by Age

This UCSF Memory and Aging Center graph shows that the pace of cognitive decline is the same in the 40’s as in the 80’s. We just notice more accumulated decline as we get older, especially when we cross the threshold of forgetting most of what we try to remember.

But we can affect this progression. Prof. Merzenich at UCSF has found that neural plasticity does not disappear in adults. It just requires mental exercise. Use it or lose it. We have to get out of the mental ruts that career tracks and academic “disciplines” can foster. Blogging is a form of mental exercise. I try to let this one take a random walk of curiosities and child-like exploration.

Bottom line: Embrace lifelong learning. Do something new. Physical exercise is repetitive; mental exercise is eclectic.


  • Exercise. Yes. Gotta do some of that.

    Philosopher poet Hunter S. Thomspon had this all figured out.

    Watching a boxing match on TV, he blurted from an ether binge:
    “Kill the body and the head will die.”

    But Morpheus reminds us of the converse:
    "The body can't live without the mind."

    Hey! I’m just milking earlier ideas.

    By Blogger Steve Jurvetson, at 1:51 PM  

  • "I know not what I appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell, whilest the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."

    Issac Newton, Quoted in D Brewster, "Memoirs of Newton"

    Play Eclectic play.

    By Blogger Gisela Giardino, at 9:08 PM  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Blogger Gisela Giardino, at 3:54 PM  

  • Geez, my previous comment gone too bad when submitted. This was it:

    Researchers at MIT think alike. =)
    And so their mice...

    "Adult brain shows more plasticity than previously believed""The latest work goes one step farther. It shows that a brain structure responsible for an emotional response also can accept information from unusual sources and learn from a novel association."Wish I could find Gregory Bateson´s passages (in "Steps for an ecology of the mind") I like so much about learning, but in english...

    By Blogger Gisela Giardino, at 4:01 PM  

  • “Adults are just obsolete children and the hell with them.”

    - Dr. Seuss


    By Blogger Gisela Giardino, at 3:25 PM  

  • Hi Steve,

    I agree completely with the spirit of this comment. But, there's a problem with the UCSF Memory and Aging Center graph. If you look closely, the 30 years from 30-60 are given as much x-axis as the 20 years from 60-80. This makes the decline in the 40s and 50s look sharper than it really is. Which is lucky for us this side of 60...

    This doesn't detract from the general points about play and mental exercise. "May you stay/ Forever young"

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:31 PM  

  • Ken: I took great comfort in your observation for a while…. =)
    But, then I went back to take a closer look. It is frustrating to see a non-linear x-axis. But I don’t think it was to distort the data; rather I think it was an attempt to highlight the inflection point range (30-44 years) in a piecewise linear plot. I presume that the long-term trend is all that one can derive from the data with statistical significance (as opposed to a high order polynomial curve fit).

    In other words, I eyeball the data to say that, on average, we remember 12 words fairly steadily when we are young. Then somewhere around 37 years old (±7 years), we start a steady, linear decline until we die. The “simple to remember” data set that maps to the ranges I see on the graph:

    Age - Words Remembered
    35 – 12
    45 – 11
    55 – 10
    65 – 9
    75 – 8
    85 – 7

    So, on a normal x-axis of ages, I think you would see two linear regions with very different slopes. The early region is roughly flat, and the second region declines by one word per decade.

    So, I am back to noticing how much I forget... =)

    Gi: Great quotes. That Dr. Seuss sure got real crotchety in old age….

    By Blogger Steve Jurvetson, at 2:27 PM  

  • Thank you, very interesting!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:37 AM  

  • a wonderful read...liberating in theory. I have found more often than not, that misery so loves the company of it's own, that it turns and eats any others who may shine any kind of joyful light into it. It is generally in that company that the playful spirit goes into hiding as a means of preservation. Thank you for a kind of validation, this is a very special share.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:56 PM  

  • Darwin’s result was due in large measure to his working method, which violated all my rules for misery and particularly emphasized a backward twist in that he always gave priority attention to evidence tending to disconfirm
    whatever cherished and hard-won theory he already had. In contrast, most people early
    achieve and later intensify a tendency to process new and disconfirming information so that any original conclusion remains intact. They become people of whom Philip Wylie observed: “You couldn’t squeeze a dime between what they already know and what
    they will never learn.”

    Charlie Munger -

    By Blogger Ishdeep Sawhney, at 8:36 PM  

  • Hi there... I thought if coming back to this old-yet-so-current post to quote part of something I am reading right now written by Jim Rohn:

    "Now the next word is fascination. Be fascinated with life and people and drama that is live and in color every day. Cinemascope. Fascination goes a little bit beyond interest. Interested people want to know does it work. Fascinated people want to know how does it work.

    Kids have this unique ability to learn several languages in a six, seven-year period, and the reason is because they are so fascinated. They are so interested. They are so curious. Kids have to know, and that is how the drama of their learning takes on such speed in a fairly short period of time is because of this unusual interest and fascination and curiosity. We're walking on ants, and kids are studying them. They say, "Don't walk on those ants. I'm studying them." How come an ant can carry something bigger than they are? That is a good question. They must be unbelievably strong if they can carry something bigger than they are.

    Here is something else I've learned. To be fascinated instead of frustrated. It is just a little trick to play. The next time you're tempted to be frustrated, see if you can't turn it into fascination. Instead of a frown, it puts a smile on your face. Now sometimes you look a little weird, but so be it. He says, "How can he smile?" I don't know. He must be somebody different."

    It belongs to the first article in his current weekly newsletter. I gues you may like to go through it all. I really like the guy.


    By Blogger Gisela Giardino, at 8:51 PM  

  • Hi!
    I just located your site while searching for quotes about accepting life with the curiosity of a child.
    And your article popped up.
    Fascinating material and puts into words what I was unable to explain.

    By Blogger Loretta, at 1:09 PM  

  • I just came across this delicious nugget from ten years ago:

    "ABSTRACT: INVESTIGATIONS about why we reject novelty as we age. The writer, a professor of neuroscience at Stanford University, irritated by his young administrative assistant’s eclectic taste in music, tested whether there any maturational time windows during which we form cultural tastes. He and his research assistants called oldies radio stations, sushi restaurants in the Midwest, and body-piercing parlors and asked the managers when their service was introduced, and how old their average customer was. They found that if you’re more than thirty-five years old when a style of popular music is introduced there’s a greater than ninety-five per cent chance that you will never choose to listen to it. For sushi restaurants, the window of receptivity closed by age thirty-nine; for body-piercing, by twenty-three. The findings were reminiscent of studies that show that creativity declines with age. These studies also indicate that great creative minds not only are less likely to generate something new but are less open to someone else’s novelty. Einstein, in his later years, fought a rear-guard action against quantum mechanics. Psychologist Dean Keith Simonton has shown that the decline in creativity and openness among great minds isn’t predicted by age so much as by how long people have worked in one discipline. Scholars who switch disciplines seem to have their openness rejuvenated. That may be because a new discipline seems fresh and original, or because a high achiever in one discipline is unusually open to novelty in the first place. Or maybe changing disciplines really does stimulate the mind’s youthful openness to novelty. Or it may just be that established generations resist new discoveries because they have the most to lose by them. The explanation is not neurological: in most brain regions there isn’t any dramatic neuron loss as we get older, and there is no such thing as a novelty center in the brain. Given that aging contracts neural networks and makes cognition more repetitive, it would be a humane quirk of evolution if we were reassured by that repetition. There may even be some advantage for social groups if their aging members become protective archivists of their cultural inheritance. But the writer remains dispirited by the impoverishment that comes with this closing of the mind to novelty. If there’s a rich, vibrant world out there, he figures it’s worth putting up a bit of a fight, even it means forgoing Bob Marley’s greatest hits every now and then."

    — Robert M. Sapolsky, Investigations, “Open Season,” The New Yorker, March 30, 1998, p. 57

    By Blogger Steve Jurvetson, at 5:23 PM  

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