Born Knowing

Born Knowing

Imprinting and the Origins of Knowledge

By Giorgio Vallortigara

An expert on the brain argues that the mind is not a blank slate and that much early behavior is biologically predisposed rather than learned.





An expert on the brain argues that the mind is not a blank slate and that much early behavior is biologically predisposed rather than learned.

Why do newborns show a preference for a face (or something that resembles a face) over a nonface-like object? Why do baby chicks prefer a moving object to an inanimate one? Neither baby human nor baby chick has had time to learn to like faces or movement. In Born Knowing, neuroscientist Giorgio Vallortigara argues that the mind is not a blank slate. Early behavior is biologically predisposed rather than learned, and this instinctive or innate behavior, Vallortigara says, is key to understanding the origins of knowledge.

Drawing on research carried out in his own laboratory over several decades, Vallortigara explores what the imprinting process in young chicks, paralleled by the cognitive feats of human newborns, reveals about minds at the onset of life. He explains that a preference for faces or representations of something face-like and animate objects—predispositions he calls “life detectors”—streamlines learning, allowing minds to avoid a confusing multiplicity of objects in the environment, and he considers the possibility that autism spectrum disorders might be linked to a deficit in the preference for the animate. He also demonstrates that animals do not need language to think, and that addition and subtraction can be performed without numbers. The origin of knowledge, Vallortigara argues, is the wisdom that humans and animals possess as basic brain equipment, the product of natural history rather than individual development.


$24.95 T ISBN: 9780262045933 192 pp. | 5.25 in x 8 in 72 b&w illus.


  • “This book presents fascinating findings and a creative synthesis at the frontier of the study of nature and nurture. It's a reassuring sign that this ancient topic, when it breaks free of black-and-white thinking, can show exciting scientific progress.”

    Steven Pinker

    Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of How the Mind Works

  • “Animals are born with the wisdom of ages engraved in their brains. Giorgio Vallortigara is one of the most creative scientists trying to pinpoint the preexisting knowledge that helps an organism learn what it needs to learn for a successful life.”

    Frans de Waal

    author of Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

  • “What are the origins of knowledge? How is it that we can make sense of the buzzing, blooming confusion of the world around us? In this beautifully written book, Vallortigara, a behavioral biologist working with chicks and babies, describes clever behavioral experiments that unravel the evolved, cognitive, and emotional scaffolds that make the extraction of physical and social regularities possible. Written with compassion and humor, and adorned with delightful and informative illustrations, this book provides insights into the ways in which the mind gains knowledge of the world.”

    Eva Jablonka

    Tel-Aviv University, coauthor of The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul