These are my notes from reading Lise Elliot’s What’s Going On in There?.

Chapter 1, short and light, gives a brief overview of the nature/nurture issue, and explains the author’s reasons for writing this book.

Babies, as we’ll see, are not “blank slates” at birth. They come in to the world with all kinds of mental skills and predispositions, abilities uniquely suited to the critical needs of early life. Their brains are small, to be sure, but they are no miniature versions of an adult’s. The nervous system matures in a programmed sequence, from “tail” to head. By birth, the spinal cord and the brain stem – lower-brain structures that control all of our vital bodily functions – are almost fully developed and largely responsible for meeting a newborn’s essential needs: to survive, grow, and bond with caregivers.

This sequence continues after birth, as higher-brain areas progressively take control of a baby’s mental life.

But an obvious question is why babies are born with such primitive brains. Why, if development is largely preordained, do they not begin life with full vision and hearing, able to walk, talk, and do long division? According to one line of reasoning, it is our upright posture that is to blame: a bipedal lifestyle sets certain limits on pelvic size, so women can squeeze out babies only with relatively small heads – that is, babies whose brains are only partially developed. [...]

A better reason why we, and other intelligent species, are born with such poorly developed brains is so that we can learn. Babies’ brains are learning machines. They build themselves, or adapt, to the environment at hand.