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Many Minds

Aug 18, 2021

Welcome back friends! Cue the kazoos and the champagne—after a short summer snooze, we’re much revived and ready for a third season of Many Minds!

I could not be more thrilled about the guest we have to help kick things off: Dr. Alison Gopnik. Alison is a Professor of Psychology and Affiliate Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. She’s the author of several books, including most recently The Gardener and the Carpenter, and she writes the “Mind and Matter” column for the Wall Street Journal. She also recently became the president-elect of the Association for Psychological Science.

As many of you know, Alison is a distinguished developmental psychologist—she’s been thinking deeply about children and writing insightfully about them for decades. But more recently she’s stepped back to think also about childhood itself: that long period where we’re kind of needy, messy, dreamy, and blissfully unproductive. She notes that childhood may be one of the most puzzling and distinctive things about our species. Though it is perhaps rivaled by the other extreme of the human lifespan: old age, or as she calls it, “elderhood.”

Here Alison and I talk about childhood and elderhood and how they go hand in hand. We discuss how they evolved, and, of course, why. We consider how they are associated with different modes of thinking and different ways of being. We talk about Alison’s radical suggestion that it’s during these bookends of life—our first act and last act—that we are, in fact, at our most human.

Something I especially enjoyed about this conversation—and you’ll definitely notice it if you’ve been listening to the show for awhile—is how often we hit on themes and topics from past episodes. We touch on cephalopods, orcas, bees, and Neanderthals; we talk about the tension between imitation and innovation and about why adults don’t change their minds. But here, of course, we’re seeing all this familiar terrain from new angles.

But before we get to the episode, just wanted to say a quick but heartfelt thanks for all your support over our first two seasons. The best way to keep supporting the show is just to keep listening, to rate and review us if you haven’t already, and, of course, to recommend us to a friend or colleague.

Alright folks, looking forward to spending more time with you in the coming months. Here’s my conversation with Dr. Alison Gopnik. Enjoy!

A transcript of this episode is available here.


Notes and links

4:00 – On our distinctive life history, see Dr. Gopnik’s recent paper ‘Childhood as a solution to explore-exploit tensions’ and her 2020 piece in Aeon magazine. Some of this terrain is also covered in her most recent book, The Gardener and the Carpenter.

8:30 – The term “alloparents” was introduced by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. See especially her book Mothers and Others.

11:30 – A recent study of hunting productivity and life history by Jeremy Koster, Michael Gurven, and colleagues.

13:40 – A 1972 paper by Jerome Bruner on the uses of immaturity.

15:00 – One of Dr. Gopnik’s (co-authored) earlier books was The Scientist in the Crib.

20:15 – A paper on life history and brain size in marsupials.

21:00 – On the explore-exploit tradeoff, see especially Dr. Gopnik’s recent paper ‘Childhood as a solution to explore-exploit tensions.’

29:30 – The 1983 paper that described this analogy with metallurgy and the “simulated annealing” approach to optimization.

35:30 – A paper on the division of labor among bees.

37:00 – See Dr. Gopnik’s recent column titled ‘The Many Minds of the Octopus.’

40:00 – A paper on the role of climate variability in evolution.

43:00 – A series of papers by Dr. Gopnik and colleagues suggest that children have a more exploratory mindset than adults. See here, here, and here.

49:30 – On the finding that adolescents are more flexible than either young children or adults on a social task, see here.

52:00 – Michael Pollan’s new book, This is Your Mind on Plants, discusses three drugs derived from plants.

55:00 – A paper by (former guest!) Cristine Legare about the trade-offs between imitation and innovation.

56:20 – Dr. Gopnik’s most recent column on altruism and aging.

1:00:20 – A paper by Dr. Gopnik and collaborators on causal learning across cultures and socioeconomic strata, which included children in Peru.

Dr. Gopnik recommends a recent special issue on life history and learning.

You can find Dr. Gopnik on Twitter (@AlisonGopnik) and follow her work on her website.  


Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI) (, which is made possible by a generous grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to UCLA. It is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with creative support from DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster, and Associate Director Isabelle Laumer. Our artwork is by Ben Oldroyd ( Our transcripts are created by Sarah Dopierala (

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