Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Trusting early memories

One group of people who need to know about children's minds are those who deal with them in a legal capacity. Among other things, lawyers, judges and law enforcers need to understand about young people's capacity to give consent, how they respond to the social context of questioning, and how they represent past events about which they might be asked to testify.

The British Psychological Society recently published a set of guidelines on the topic of the law and human memory. The report, authored by a working party chaired by Martin Conway, considers the legal implications of recent findings on memory and forgetting. When children are involved in the legal process, such as in situations involving abuse, cases can hang on the accuracy of a child's memory. And yet those in the legal professions rarely take research on memory into their reckoning, preferring instead to rely on expert witnesses to vouch for the reliability or otherwise of participants' recollections.

There are some thorny problems here, and the report demands to be read and weighed carefully. One point made by the authors stood out for me in particular. On the basis of a great deal of research, the authors explicitly caution against comparisons between human memory and mechanical recording media such as video tapes. But these are errors that are still widespread. The writer Hilary Mantel, for example, in her acclaimed memoir Giving Up The Ghost (Fourth Estate, 2003), puts it like this:
"Though my early memories are patchy, I think they are not, or not entirely a confabulation, and I believe this because of their overwhelming sensory power [...] As I say 'I tasted,' I taste, and as I say 'I heard,' I hear: I am not talking about a Proustian moment, but a Proustian cine-film. Anyone can run these ancient newsreels, with a bit of preparation..."
For Mantel, the vividness of her memories is the guarantee of their accuracy. Decades of research into autobiographical memory show that this is simply wrong. Indeed, the BPS report specifically warns against trusting memories just because they have vivid sensory properties. Memory is too much a tale of storytelling. The only true guide to the accuracy of memories is, ultimately, independent corroboration.

You can download the BPS report here.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Around the table

Developmental psychologists like their laboratories and their experimental tasks, but they also recognise that many of the complexities of children's development only reveal themselves amid the noise of everyday life. In their search for naturalistic contexts for their observations, those who study children's minds have often seen the value of family mealtimes. Mealtimes follow pretty set scripts; they keep energetic toddlers in the same place for a few minutes at a time; and they involve all sorts of verbal and nonverbal communication. As well as using the family dining table as a context within which to observe children directly, psychologists have also studied the effects of exposure to these particularly important social routines.

The latest Social Policy Report Brief from the Society for Research in Child Development summarises some of these findings and calls for their wider dissemination. Eating together is linked to vocabulary growth and academic achievement in younger children, and is associated with lower rates of behaviour problems. There are benefits in terms of avoiding obesity and eating disorders. Teenagers who eat with the family five or more times a week are protected against the temptations of nicotine, marijuana and alcohol. Shared meals tend to be healthier, and teenagers who enjoy them get through more fruit and vegetables. 

All this, when the average American family mealtime lasts about twenty minutes. For this important context for development, even a short exposure seems to make a big difference. 

You can download the Brief here

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Is he nearly here yet?

Isaac can't wait. Today is Christmas Eve, which means that tonight Santa Claus will come down the chimney and 'drink some of that special wine that he likes'.

'Single malt whisky,' I correct him. 

'I'm so excited,' he says. 'I want him to come now.'

I wrote about children's perception of time in the book. In the chapter entitled 'The Young Doctor Who', I describe some experiments conducted by my colleague Teresa McCormack. Children were shown a picture of an owl called Barney and listened to the sound Barney made (a tone lasting half a second). They then heard some sounds (each of differing lengths) made by other owls, followed by some test trials in which they had to judge whether the sound they were hearing was Barney's sound (the half-second one):
Five-year-olds (the youngest children tested so far) tend to claim that sounds shorter than half a second are Barney’s sound: that is, children remember the tone as being shorter than it was in reality. It is as though their own internal clocks are running too fast, causing them to judge that time is passing more quickly than it really is. Those children who pester their parents with pleas of ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ may simply have speeded-up body clocks. Appealing to concrete intervals measured in conventional units of time (‘We’ll be there in half an hour’) is no solution, since a five-year-old’s half an hour is quite a bit shorter than that of the person behind the wheel.
The historian of psychology Douwe Draaisma also considers some distortions of time perception, but focusing on the other end of the life span. In his book Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older (see the books carousel at the bottom of this page), he considers how the pressures on time perception in old age might work in the opposite direction. The wheels that measure time turn more slowly (perhaps because of a reduced rate of metabolism), and so the years fly by. 

Draaisma also quotes that other great psychologist of time, Marcel Proust. In The Guermantes Way, Marcel can think of nothing other than his forthcoming appointment with Mme de Stermaria: 
For as a general rule, the shorter the interval is that separates us from our planned objective, the longer it seems to us, because we apply to it a more minute scale of measurement, or simply because it occurs to us to measure it at all.
So it is with Isaac and Santa. If he had other things to distract him, the hours might not drag so. If he were eighty years old, the day would fly by. But he is five, and in for a excitable, dragging wait. It is going to be a long day. 

Happy Christmas to all. I hope you'll drop by again in the New Year. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The horror remembered

To the Wellcome Collection for Shona Illingworth's moving and thoughtful installation, 'The Watch Man'. The piece, which forms part of the current exhibition on War and Medicine, recreates the experience of a war veteran who witnessed one of the most shocking events of the Second World War. I was particularly struck by the way that Illingworth used sound and film together, and sometimes working at cross-purposes, to create the sense of a past alive in the present. A feature of a traumatized mind is that its fragments of remembered horror lie close to the surface of consciousness, at least until such time as they can be ordered into coherent representations of what happened. 

All of this fits well with the idea that memories are constructed out of fragments of sensory experience combined with more schematic knowledge about one's own life. This was one of the themes of our subsequent discussion yesterday at the Wellcome. I was part of a group of social scientists, artists, journalists and filmmakers who had been invited to discuss some key questions around war and memory. Another important factor in the making of the piece, Illingworth told us, was the idea that our capacity to suppress traumatic memories becomes weaker as we get older—hence the particularly vivid experiences of the old man at the centre of the piece. 

All of which got me wondering again about how traumatic memories function in childhood. We were treated to a fascinating talk by my Durham colleague Catherine Panter-Brick, who has been running a research project with children affected by militarised violence in Afghanistan. We also had a compelling talk by the photo-journalist Tom Stoddart from Getty Images, who showed some of the photos he has taken in Kosovo, Sarajevo, Goma, in post 9/11 New York, and elsewhere. As children are rarely spared from such atrocities, many of these pictures show young faces. 

There is a common understanding, probably stemming from psychoanalytic theory, that traumatic memories work differently to ordinary remembering. In their recent review of psychological research in the area, Ingrid Cordón and colleagues suggest that memories for traumatic events are forgotten and recalled in similar ways to memories for happier ones. In one study of children who had suffered a documented trauma such as sexual abuse or kidnapping, traumas that had happened before the age of around three were only sketchily recalled, if at all. Even with older children, there is little evidence that traumatic events are remembered in a fundamentally different way to everyday ones. Those that are recalled are often recalled for longer, but that may just be because traumatic events are distinctive, and distinctive events, good or bad, stick in one’s mind. This leads us to a paradox, because it is indisputable that traumas mess you up. Childhood sexual abuse, for example, is reported by a substantial majority of psychiatric patients troubled by hearing voices. However it is that traumatic events have their effects, it can’t be through anything that is accessible to consciousness. Whatever influences they have on our behaviour or future mental health, we don’t seem to recall them any differently to anything else.

Which brings it home to me how much more we need to learn and understand about memory following trauma. Young children's memory is fragmentary anyway, and even psychologically undamaged kids must strive to create coherence just as a traumatized mind must. I will be blogging more on these topics in the months to come; as ever, I would welcome any thoughts. 

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Thousand Days of Wonder

In April next year, Avery (a division of Penguin USA) will publish The Baby in the Mirror in its US edition. Here's what the jacket will look like. You can see the catalogue entry by clicking here and scrolling to p. 84. I'll be posting more details about the US edition in the New Year. 

The book can be pre-ordered from Amazon.com by clicking in the box on the right. You can also order through Barnes & Noble and Borders

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Who is the baby in the mirror?

Enough people have asked me this question to make me think it needs some kind of public answer. Is that Athena on the cover of the book? For some people who have asked this question, it has been a way of cautiously seeking confirmation of something that has already been assumed. Given that there is so much of us already in this book, why wouldn't I have gone the whole hog and put a picture of her on the cover?

It doesn't help that the book has occasionally been described as 'containing photographs of the author's daughter'. The book contains images, for sure, mostly still-frame captures from our home movies, many of which were actually shot by Athena. But she herself appears only fleetingly, unrecognisably. This has been intentional, of course. As father/author, I felt that she had had quite enough scrutiny in the pages of the book to need attention in any other medium. I wanted her to come alive through the words on the page, and let readers fill in the physical picture in their imaginations. Her name is known, but her face is not. We would all want it to stay that way.

So would I put her photograph on the cover? Of course not. The image is a stock photo, and I want to ask no more about it than that. The baby in the mirror is someone's little girl, deserving of her own privacy. As are all our babies.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The power of lullaby?

News this week that mothers are lulling babies to sleep with pop songs rather than traditional lullabies. We know that even very young babies have a capacity to recognise melody, and that some of this learning takes place even before birth. Music provides a source of organised perceptual stimuli that probably helps to shape processes of synapse formation, neural pruning and cortical differentiation from pretty much as soon as hearing is established in the second trimester. That is not the same as saying that music makes you smarter. A parent can value music as an enriching force in their child's environment without being committed to believing in the Mozart Effect

Mozart has become established as a leading entertainer of western children ever since researchers at the University of California, Irvine, reported that listening to his Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major improved college students’ spatial reasoning. In a perhaps reckless effort to dramatize their findings for a lay audience, the UCI researchers translated the improvement into notional IQ scores, leading to the inevitable tabloid headline that listening to Mozart adds eight or nine points to your IQ. Although the intelligence boost was short-lived, the idea took a grip. Most bizarrely, people took the IQ point literally, and assumed that it must apply to babies and children too. An industry grew up, relieving parents of their dollars in return for Mozart CDs and videos, and even stethoscopic devices delivering interuterine muzak: Amadeus piped in to the womb. In fact, the Mozart Effect has been almost entirely debunked by subsequent studies, and there is not a shred of evidence that listening to the stuff, either in the womb or in the nursery, makes children any brighter.

One interesting point here, though, is that the researchers responsible for the original Mozart Effect findings hypothesised that the effect would be specific to Mozart's music, or music very like it. Other kinds of music, such as pop, were not supposed to have the same magical powers. It seems that the parents in this survey disagree. Nearly two-thirds of the respondents thought that pop songs were better than traditional lullabies. The presence of Dizzee Rascal in the top 20 might be a surprise, but some of these tunes (stand up Whitney Houston and Bryan Adams) are already famous for their soporific properties. My own tune of choice, when the children were babies, was that old Mancini classic, Moon River. What do readers of this blog find works with their little ones? And what explanations do you have for the power of lullaby?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Santa Run

Not a post on children's development today, but something much more important. This weekend Athena and I will be dressing up as Santa and running 4km in support of the Sunshine Fund and Zoe's Place Baby Hospice. You can support these good causes by clicking on the links. There are more details on the event here.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Nah nah ne nah nah

I've been speaking this week to Isabel Berwick from the FT, who is interested in the particular phenomenon that is Horrid Henry. You can read her piece here. Like Isabel, I am intrigued by the apparent lack of moral structure in these stories, but I think it makes a bit more sense when we think about what young readers are having to do in terms of entering the storyworld of the books. This is one of those instances where, I think, parents have to make calls on the basis of knowledge of their children but also - if possible - knowledge of some of the relevant research. That's been my approach throughout this whole project. I would rather parents made decisions for themselves, based on good information, rather than swallow prescriptions from so-called experts. As ever, if you have thoughts on this or anything else that's covered here, I'd love to hear them. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Shh... quiet please

Children and silence: surely two incompatible notions. As followers of this blog will know, I have spent much of my time recently arguing that young children's thought processes are all on the outside, at least initially. Children conduct their dialogues of thought externally, for all to hear. For this reason alone, being with a toddler is a noisy place to be.

But it somehow feels odd to be making that statement. Some of my most profoundly happy memories of parenthood are of moments when I have been with one or the other of my small children, saying nothing and hearing nothing said in return, nor expecting any such bids for verbal connection. It is possible to be peaceful and silent with a child, I think, in a way that other adults rarely let us be. Sara Maitland captures this in her wonderful new non-fiction work, A Book of Silence. She cites the claim of Donald Winnicott, the famous English psychoanalyst, that the capacity to enjoy silence stems from 'the child's experience of being alone in the presence of the mother'. These are moments when all bodily needs have been attended to, and there is nothing left but to enjoy the presence of the other. In Chapter 4 of The Baby in the Mirror, I describe a similar epiphany in a moment of profound peace I shared with Athena, when she was six weeks old. It was an early morning, and she had just been fed. She wanted human contact, and even as a very small baby she was an expert in obtaining it. We simply lay and looked at each other in the dawn light, saying nothing and wanting nothing except the presence of the other. This tiny human was an expert in the art of silence, and she was teaching me something.

Maitland's funny, humane and wide-ranging work makes us think about the developmental aspects of silence in other ways, too. In a fascinating section on silent reading, she explores the idea that the internalisation of reading—its transformation from overt speaking-aloud to the silent processing of text—marked a critical moment in the evolution of the modern self. 'The practice of silent reading led to individual, or independent thinking', as Maitland puts it. St Augustine was the key figure in this transition, although Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, seemed to have given Augustine the idea.

You can read reviews of A Book of Silence in the Times, the Guardian, the Independent and the Economist. An extract from the book is published in the Guardian. I will be in conversation with Sara Maitland at St. Chad's College, Durham, tomorrow night (Wednesday 19th November) from 7pm.

The Baby in the Mirror has been chosen by Marina Warner as a Book of the Year in the New Statesman. You can read the full article here.

Finally, all the books mentioned in this blog can be ordered through Amazon.co.uk: simply scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on the icons in the carousel on the right.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Thinking about thinking

I've been blogging away from home this week, on the topic of tonight's radio talk. You can see my post on the School of Life's blog by clicking here.

I'll be saying more on the topic at our IAS-sponsored Thinking with Feeling workshop in Durham on Saturday.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Talk on children's thinking

The talk mentioned in the previous post will be broadcast on Radio 3 at 11pm on Wednesday 5th November. You can see a few more details here.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Off to Broadcasting House

I write this on a train to London, where I'm due to record a talk for Radio 3 on children's thinking. I'll be talking about Vygotsky's theory of inner speech development and drawing some connections to the experience of voice-hearing. I'll post further details on the talk when I know them. 

Writing the talk has made me think a lot about how we might get more reliable information about young children's experience. I see this as a big part of my fellowship at the IAS, and the book on thinking that I am working on. Watch out for some more ideas on this as I go on. As ever, I'd be fascinated to hear any ideas or suggestions! 

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Children's minds lead to big ideas

Join me tomorrow (Monday 20 October) for a talk at Café Scientifique, Urban Café, Dance City, Newcastle upon Tyne. My title will be 'How Studying Children's Minds Leads to Big Ideas', and I will be focusing on some biggies like identity, rationality, love and God. The event is free and you can just show up; no need to book.

The Newcastle Journal ran a piece by me on Saturday, unfortunately not available online. I will also be talking on BBC Radio Newcastle's morning show at 11.15 tomorrow.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The adjectival truth

'Daddy. I've got to tell you what I did last night when you were out.'

He has come into our bed for a cuddle. It is a dark early morning, and nobody really wants to get up.

'OK,' I yawn. 'What did you do?'

'I made something. It's to do with making.'

'What did you make?'

'I made a r... r... r...'

I know this game, because we play it with him all the time. We keep in mind the idea we want him to guess, repeat the initial phoneme, and see if he can fill in the rest. 

'A rabbit?'


'A racetrack?'

'No. A really...'

'Oh. I see. R for really. A really what?'

'A really g... g... g...'


'Uh huh. A really good c... c... c...'


'No, countryside. A really good countryside.'

Nouns and adjectives. Adjectives and adverbs. What makes a noun like countryside a better candidate for the 'missing ending' game than these other components of language? As words that stand for things, we tend to think of nouns as the support structures of our conversation. They are the pillars that the whole thing is built around. Words like adjectives and adverbs are just the decoration. But a four-year-old won't necessarily see it like that. For him, all words are created equal. They are all sounds that you have to labour to make, with your tongue, mouth and lips. They are all important in saying what you want to say. 

'A really good countryside? That you can put animals in?'

'M... m... m...'

'Mountains? Mice?'

'Maybe,' he says. 

Monday, October 13, 2008

God and the builders

'Did God get the world started and the builders finished it?'  

And so we have frequently, in recent months, come to debate the Big Fella's role in furnishing us with what there is. I am pretty convinced about evolution by natural selection, although I did spend much of my Cambridge interview trying to convince the indulgent don opposite that the universe had not been around long enough for us to have inched towards perfection by such careful degrees. So I find it hard to tell Isaac that anyone made anything, in the sense of setting out with an intention (that most human of mental quantities) and then assiduously seeing it through. I'm one of the group of people for whom Richard Dawkins reserves some of the largest doses of his prodigious contempt: those who would claim that religious belief gives human beings a rewarding, affirming narrative that helps them to make sense of their lives. (Read RD's preface to the revised edition of The God Delusion to see why he believes that this 'patronising' attitude won't do.) I can cope with the wrath of Dawkins, but not the disappointment of my own child. Isaac wants answers, and I'm the one who's supposed to be giving them. 

How creationist should we be with our kids? Some recent research suggests that, by coming over all Dawkins with our little ones, we might be wasting our time. In his wonderful Descartes' Baby, Paul Bloom reviews some findings that children's belief in creation stems from a natural tendency to attribute intention where in fact there is none. As part of the process of acquiring a theory of mind, children's mind-reading sometimes hits the wrong targets, and sees, for example, a mountain range as having been put there on purpose, by some higher, invisible miglior fabbro

Here's how I summarise Bloom's arguments in The Baby in the Mirror
It’s easy to see why people believe in a Creator. So much is mysterious: why the sun rises, how gases fuse to make water, how blind natural selection could have launched birds into the air. Through the centuries, children have wanted answers to these questions, and adults have had to try to find ways of explaining them. If Bloom is right, those adults needn’t have bothered. The explanations were already at hand. Until children’s thinking is sufficiently developed to cope with the hard science, the belief that God or some other supernatural being is responsible for all these miracles comes to youngsters as naturally as language does.
So I have to manage Isaac's perfectly natural creationist leanings while still being honest to my own truth. It has the makings of a classic fudge. God made the world possible, I tell him, and then Nature did the rest. I'm starting to sound like the Archbishop of Canterbury:

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Feedback welcome!

Many thanks to all who have been following the blog. I'm constantly looking for ways to improve it, so if you have ideas about things to be included or changes to make then please let me know. You can find me on Facebook here, or you can send an email through my website by clicking here. Otherwise just leave a comment on this post. 

I look forward to hearing from you! 

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Robot abuse

Two BBC journalists have posted an intriguing video of an informal experiment carried out in what I guess is their journalistic HQ. The film shows them acting as mum and dad to a kind of robot dinosaur called a Pleo. I'm not sure what AI wizardry makes the Pleo's behaviour so lifelike, but it is certainly convincing. Of most interest to me, though, is the contrast the film draws between two parenting styles. The Pleo's manufacturers claim that the robot forms a personality on the basis of its early experiences, much as a human infant is thought to do. Under a loving, indulgent parental regime, the robot seems well-adjusted and contented. Under a harsh, abusive regime, it ends up lethargic and depressed. 

Plenty of interesting things emerge from this piece. Firstly, I'm struck by how good these journalists—we're not told whether they are parents themselves—are at playing the part of good parents. Instinctively, it seems, they do exactly what good parents everywhere do. We see evidence of motherese in their conversational styles: higher-pitched voices with exaggerated intonation. The Pleo gets gentle tactile stimulation and plenty of mind-minded linguistic input, concerned with the robot's emotional and cognitive states of mind. The 'parents' are keen to take the Pleo outside to expand its experiences. There is even a suggestion that these positive strokings give the Pleo the 'confidence' to go out and explore its environment: a hallmark of secure attachment behaviour. 

In the neglectful scenario, the parents play their roles in an equally, and scarily, convincing way. They try to pass the baby on to each other, making excuses for why they can't look after him. The poor robot baby is shunted around the office in the hope that someone will give him some time. 'He's a more reserved robot than in the parallel happy life,' the caption tells us. It might seem odd to attribute such human characteristics to something that we know to be a lump of electronic circuitry, but the emotional impression is powerful. 

As with so much of developmental psychology, the adults' actions are of as much interest as the baby's. The Pleo, of course, has been cleverly designed to press all the emotional buttons that a human baby does, with cute squeaks and ET-like eye-blinks. It reminded me of the wonderful Kismet robot created by MIT engineers:

The point about is Kismet is that it calls out certain reactions in us, just by behaving in a human-like way. One puzzle that developmental psychologists have to contend with is how parenting can possibly make any difference when the object of parental love—the newborn baby—seems to have so little to make a difference to. Here's a creature that—very broadly speaking—cannot see clearly, process information effectively, remember past experiences, have consciousness of its own self and so on. How can it possibly be shaped by such sensitive and subtle parental behaviours? The robot work gives us a clue how. A creature that starts off as a blob of unconscious circuitry might become conscious, just because we take it as being so. If that is so, then the Pleo's parents' efforts might not have been wasted after all. 

Friday, September 26, 2008

Doddy and Daddy

Angelique Richardson has also responded to Alison Gopnik's TLS review, mentioned in a previous post. She draws our attention to 'one fine child psychologist', Charles Darwin, quoting from his 1873 work The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Darwin was indeed a pioneer of infant observation, which was most memorably documented in his short article 'A biographical sketch of an infant', published in 1877. The subject of the article was Darwin's infant son Doddy (properly William), who was born in 1839. The piece contains many rich observations, but of most interest to me were Darwin's comments on Doddy's reaction to his reflection in a looking glass. Doddy's mirror reactions were first observed at four and a half months, at which stage he seemed to take his own reflection as the image of another being, a Doddy double. Later, he began to make the connection between the reflection and the person who was being mirrored. In The Baby in the Mirror, I describe how Darwin's observations inspired some of my own: 
Two months later, Doddy’s understanding of mirrors had taken a step forward. Facing the mirror in front of his father, he now seemed to realise that his father’s reflection was connected to the person standing behind him. When Darwin made a face in the mirror, Doddy turned to look at the man, not at his reflection. We saw Athena doing something similar at the same age. We would sit her on the bed and stand to one side, so that she could see us in the mirror but not herself. She would raise her arms and throw herself forward, reaching, as though in prayer. When we waved, she would give her characteristic double-handed wave in return, a cross between a communicative gesture and an exuberant attempt at taking flight, raising both hands high and then batting them down on the duvet on either side. Then she would turn to look at the figure reflected, confirming it against its image. She understood something about the mechanics of reflection, that what you see in the mirror is not just an extension of the world but a special version of it. She was far from having a full understanding of it, but the looking-glass world was becoming real.
You can read Angelique Richardson's letter here

Saturday, September 20, 2008

I'm just going to have to put you on hold

The arrival of hard-disc recording has transformed our television habits. No matter how enthralling the programme—try dragging Athena away from an episode of the Australian kids-soap Mortified, for example—a press of the button will freeze it in time and unfreeze it when it is safe for the action to resume. Usually the hiatus lasts only as long as it takes to communicate essential orders about tidying bedrooms or getting ready for bed. Crucially, the kids understand that their precious viewing can be manipulated in this way. They might not appreciate the technicalities of digital recording, but they understand that their glimpse of TV-land will be frozen there, incorruptibly, on the screen until such time as they can pick it up from where they left off. 

Isaac is on the phone to Granny. They are discussing some work he has done at school, and he wants to bring it to the phone. 'I'll just pause you for a second,' he says, putting the handset down and skipping off to retrieve his drawing. For a moment, Granny is just like any bit of digital reality that can be paused, or even rewound, for the user's convenience. Is he using the word metaphorically, in the sense of 'keeping someone hanging' or 'leaving someone to stew'? I'm not sure. I suspect there's a deeper confusion about the particular multimedia experience that's called interacting with a person. Or perhaps he thinks that pausing his phone conversation is about exerting control over the bit of technology he holds in his hands, rather than using his powers of persuasion on the flesh-and-blood person at the end of the line. 

All of which reminds me of a cartoon I was sent a while ago. A stout boy is standing on his back step pointing a remote control at his garden and clicking furiously. Out of view behind him, the voice of Mom is calling: 'It's the outdoors! The remote doesn't work on it!! Go and play...' I don't think we're meant to conclude that the little telly addict depicted here does not understand the outside world as a reality that exists independently of him. He knows there's a real world out there; he's just a bit confused, like Isaac is, about the mechanisms through which it can be controlled. 

Monday, September 15, 2008

Sticky mittens

Avid readers of the TLS will have noticed that it recently carried a review of The Baby in the Mirror by Alison Gopnik. You can read Gopnik's review here. I responded to the review and the letter was published this week. You can read my response here.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Packed off to the brain gym

'Is playing with my train set using my brain?' Isaac asks. 

I blame the video games for this current obsession. His activities now divide neatly into those that involve using your brain and those that don't. Colouring and looking at storybooks are good because they employ your grey matter; playing Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games confers no such benefits. Ever since he discovered Athena's Nintendo DS (and refused to give it back), he has been a little too interested in things that beep, flash and emit electronic sighs of disappointment when you lose. 

I haven't yet quizzed him on what he understands about the body's most complex organ. A landmark study by Carl Johnson used an innovative method to get at young children's understanding of how our identity as people is underpinned by our biology. He presented children with hypothetical situations involving transplants of different parts of the body. For example, children were asked to imagine that their own brain were removed and inserted into the body of a friendly pig, or that there were an exchange of brain, mouth or heart between themselves and a baby. Would children understand that removing a person's brain and putting it into the head of another would affect the identity of that person, while an equivalent transplant of another organ would not affect the consciousness of either party? 

The results of this and other studies show that children's understanding of how mind is rooted in brain develops gradually over the early school years. Children of kindergarten age seem to understand that the brain is where thinking happens, and that without it consciousness would be impossible. It is a slightly different matter, and one that requires further developmental progress, to understand how the contents of our consciousness are 'contained' in the mental organ. Gail Gottfried and colleagues have argued that children's increasing acceptance of the 'brain-as-container' metaphor is at odds with their essentialism. This concept from philosophy, when applied to the development of children's knowledge, refers to the supposition that living creatures are what they are by virtue of some essential quality, such that a pig will remain fundamentally piggy no matter what modifications are made to its insides. Four-year-old Isaac might accept that his brain is what makes thinking possible, while insisting (because of his rampart essentialism) that he would stay the same person even if he were magically implanted with someone else's cortex. 

The need to maintain the processing efficiency of the porridge between your ears is becoming more obviously acknowledged in children's culture. I've caught Athena watching a programme called Brain-Jitsu on CBBC, which sets its child contestants brain-training challenges based on elementary neuroscience. Some of the functional neuroanatomy is a bit simplistic—there is too much of that left-brain/right-brain twaddle that was so popular in the 1960s—but it surely can't be a bad thing that kids' interest in the science is getting this potential boost. 

Anyway, they are now away at the brain gym to beat all others: school. Isaac was packed off to his first day at reception this week, with the promise that he would be doing lots of things that involved using his brain. Life at school will be like life at home when he's not using the Nintendo, only more so.  

The end of the school holidays, and the prospect of weeks of undistracted work time, coincides with the news of two polls that show worrying levels of stress-related drinking among parents of young children, especially at the end of the school holidays. Now there's a news story that rings true. 

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Simulations that run on minds

I talked in an earlier post about the idea that we come to understand other people's mental states through learning to project ourselves, through imagination, into the point of view of another person. In gaining a grasp of my mental states, Athena has to learn to novelise me, or run a mental simulation of my own beliefs, desires and intentions in order to predict and understand how I will act, think and feel. Simulation theory, as it is known, is seen as one of the main alternatives to the view that children develop a 'theory' of mind by framing hypotheses about how the mind works and then testing them out through action. 

Proponents of simulation theory have frequently drawn parallels between the kind of biographical thinking involved in simulation and the creative processes through which novelists create characters. The psychologist and novelist Keith Oatley has been one of the most important advocates of the view that fiction itself is a kind of simulation—in his words, 'a simulation that runs on minds of readers'. In the blog OnFiction, which he co-authors with some other academics interested in the relation between psychology and fiction, he describes this position along with hinting at some of its implications. One such implication is that our reading of fiction can be expected to give our mind-reading abilities a thorough work-out. A similar view has been put forward by Lisa Zunshine, who has argued that one of the pleasures of fictional prose is the way it challenges our theory of mind. Working out who thinks what about whom is a mental challenge which constantly brings us, as expert readers and novices ones, back to storyworlds.  

You can read Keith's post here

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The televisionlessness of it all

We are not killjoy parents when it comes to life's small pleasures. Sweets are allowed in moderation, and fizzy drinks occasionally (I personally find Coke the perfect hangover cure, so couldn't exactly ban it without looking like the vilest hypocrite). Our kitchen/living-room often jitters to the sound of video games. The kids are allowed to watch TV, although we try to steer them away from the commercial channels and their endless adverts. The grown-ups have their fun too: there is usually some live cricket on in the background, even if no one is really watching it. 

All that might be about to change, though. We are all familiar with the idea that too much TV rots children's brains, causes hyperactivity and attention deficits and is generally a Bad Thing. A new study suggests that having the TV on could be harmful for young children even if they are not paying any attention to it. A team from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst wanted to find out whether 'background TV' (defined as programming not designed specifically for children) affected young children's ability to 'sustain an activity in a focused and organized manner'. Given that the average American TV set is on for more than eight hours a day, that is potentially quite a lot of background TV. 

The Amherst researchers set out to test their hypothesis with a simple experimental design. They observed a group of children (aged one, two and three) playing with toys for an hour. For half of that time, a TV game show was on in the background. As expected, the children paid little attention to this grown-up programme. But on two crucial measures of play sophistication—length of play episodes and length of bouts of focused attention—the toddlers scored significantly lower during the background TV phase compared to when they were playing in silence. The findings were not entirely clear-cut: the maturity of children's play, for example, such as the combining of two toys in a sophisticated manner, was affected in only a limited way by this kind of passive TV-watching. Overall, the authors describe the disruptive effects of background TV as 'real but small'. 

What lies behind these effects? The sound of the TV must have served as some kind of distraction: for a toddler, even a brief glance at the screen might be enough to disrupt an ongoing play routine. Secondly, exposure to excessive noise has been shown to impair cognitive functioning in children as well as adults, and TVs are inherently noisy things. I suspect that the speech-heavy nature of a game show would have been a big factor as well. It's a well-replicated finding that unattended speech disrupts the brain's ability to store information about sounds and language. Simply having to listen to all that irrelevant talking could have had a very disruptive effect on children's working memory

Anyway, it was evidence enough for me. Off went the cricket coverage and on went the soothing sounds of a classical radio station. No talking, therefore no unattended speech to damage Isaac's concentration while he was colouring. I went as far as pretending that this was special 'colouring music', as though it had been specially composed to stimulate the production of stripy sharks (his current favourite artistic theme). Reassured that he was spending some quality time engaged in a constructive activity, I went back to the study and the computer. A few minutes later, shouts were heard from the kitchen. The reason for the fight? Athena had come in and started dancing to the music, which any fool knew was 'colouring music', and definitely not for dancing.  

The post's title comes from a phrase in David Wilson's novel Love and Nausea.

Saturday, August 16, 2008


Apologies if you were looking for my website or the Baby in the Mirror microsite. I am arranging new hosting for these and am hoping they'll be up and running in a week or so. You'll be able to read about the book on this blog in the meantime. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Soren Lorensen was here

More adventures for precocious, adverbally-challenged Lola in Lauren Child's I am too absolutely small for school. In this story, Lola's big brother Charlie is trying to persuade her that she needs to join him in getting a school education. As usual, Lola has plenty of reasons why she doesn't need to bother with all that classroom rubbish. In desperation, Charlie suggests that going to school will give her a chance to make lots of new friends. 'But I have friends,' Lola says. 'I've got Soren Lorensen.' 

Soren Lorensen is Lola's 'invisible friend' or imaginary companion. No one knows what he looks like, but he is well known to the family. If Lola is coming up for school age (making her four or five), she is just entering the peak period for engagement with imaginary friends. Cleverly, Charlie points out that Soren Lorensen will be going to school and so will need Lola to go along to keep him company. Lola admits that Soren will be nervous about starting school, and so she will need to do the honourable thing. Really, of course, she is just using Soren as a mouthpiece for her own anxieties. 

In her preface to the book, Lauren Child explains how the Soren Lorensen character came to be. Soren was the name of the brother of a little girl called Sofie, who made up an imaginary friend of the same name when her real big brother didn't want to play with her. Calling your imaginary friend by the same name as your actual brother puts me in mind of the two sisters described by James Sully, who spent the afternoon wrapped in the elaborate pretence that they were... sisters. For young children, the real keeps intruding into the imaginary.

Lauren Child ends the preface with a note about this intriguing phenomenon. "The very nice thing about imaginary friends," she writes, "is that they will always do what you want to do, and they will always be there when you need them." It seems to stand to reason that the character we have invented for ourselves will be willing and compliant, but it's not actually true. The foremost expert on imaginary companions, Marjorie Taylor, has written of the 'illusion of independent agency' which comes into play in children's interactions with imaginary characters. Many children's invisible friends do not do what they are told. Some, indeed, can be a bit hostile or creepy. Reflecting on how children's imaginary friends can come to take on lives of their own, Taylor has drawn comparisons with a novelist's creation of fictional characters which, in that curious way, soon fail to do the author's bidding. 

So if your child's imaginary friend shows awful table manners, sulks when it can't get its own way, or seems to have a social life of its own, you are just witnessing another aspect of a common developmental phenomenon. Who knows what social skills your child is learning as she tries to exert control over these intransigent mental creations? 

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Happy mother, clever baby?

I'm pleased to see that Roddy Woomble at the Sunday Herald has been enjoying the book as he prepares for fatherhood. His comments on the commercialisation of modern parenthood put me in mind of Pamela Paul's recent exposé of the 'billion-dollar baby business' in her book Parenting Inc. You can read a Guardian interview with Paul here

I confess that I wasn't familiar with Woomble's current favourite bit of pre-parenthood reading, Grantly Dick-Read's Childbirth Without Fear. As people who benefited from the services of the NCT, though, we surely will have been influenced by Dick-Read's philosophy. We certainly shared his concerns about the medicalisation of childbirth, which was a big factor in our choosing a home birth for our second child. Living as we do in a sparsely populated area, we were lucky to have midwives who were very comfortable with the idea of delivering at home. For those further up the dale, who may be an hour away from the nearest maternity ward, delivering at home is a very realistic scenario. It may not suit everyone, but it was a happy and satisfying option for us. 

Whatever our reasons for choosing a home delivery, I don't think we were ever really doing it in the hope that it would lead to a smarter, happier or more well-adjusted baby. Thinking about it from some distance, I have been wondering whether there is any research on the topic. The medical profession seems increasingly satisfied with home birth as an option (as evidenced by the latest NICE guidelines' advice that it should be offered routinely), but what do the psychologists say? 

I cannot find any evidence specifically relating to planned home births (the NICE document admits that decent evidence is missing in several areas) but certain questions are obviously worth asking. According to NICE, planned home births seem to be associated with a greater likelihood of vaginal delivery, reduced perineal damage and greater maternal satisfaction. Breastfeeding may be more easily established as a result. The less frequent use of pain-reduction drugs like pethidine means that mothers and babies might be a bit more alert in the first few hours. I can't imagine, though, that greater wakefulness would have such a big effect on babies' learning opportunities, to the extent that sleepier babies could not later catch up.

What about that element of maternal satisfaction? Does, for example, a mother who remembers her baby's birth more fondly (or at least without memories of pain and fear) have a better relationship with that baby? A woman's perception of that event may be more important, in some respects, than the medical facts of the matter. In one study, we found that mothers' tendency to rate their pregnancy as 'difficult' did not correlate with the obstetric record of actual complications. Some women who had 'objectively' had very difficult pregnancies nevertheless remembered them as having been undemanding. Others, who had no medical problems at all, paradoxically rated their experiences as arduous. 

It also seems likely that mothers' perceptions of the birth itself will be as important, psychologically speaking, as the medical details. It is not whether the delivery is objectively normal or abnormal that matters, so much as how the mother feels about it now. If anything is likely to make a difference to the baby's subsequent development, it is not the presence or absence of forceps or pethidine. It is the mother's mental representation of that birth: the story she tells about it, the way she represents it for herself. 

We have been looking at this issue in a recent study, in which we gathered both subjective and objective data about pregnancy and birth. Mothers who rated the birth more positively (in terms of their description of how they had felt when they were handed the baby for the first time) showed a special kind of sensitivity to their infants when playing with them in our child development laboratory. Specifically, those 'positive perception' mothers were more likely to treat their babies as individuals with minds, in the sense of making reference to their thoughts, wishes and desires when they were playing with them. We call this variable mind-mindedness, and have been exploring its associations with several other important aspects of development, such as attachment, theory of mind, language acquisition and play.

Quite rightly, the NICE document has a bit to say about the psychological effects on the mother of different delivery options. It would be nice to think that a future version of these guidelines could include something on psychological effects on the child. My hunch is that the two kinds of psychology will be strongly correlated, supporting the view that people should choose the delivery option that makes them happy. Let's not leave paternal psychology out of the picture, either. Having a birthing pool to fill, and cups of tea to make, helped me to feel that I was involved and useful, or, at the very least, prevented me from the getting in the way of the serious business. 

I am currently arranging new hosting for the microsite, so it will be out of action for a while. This blog will forge on regardless. Please let me know what you think by leaving a comment. 

Friday, August 1, 2008

Off to the School of Life

I was pleased to see the School of Life's website and blog launched this week. Working from its amazing premises and shop in Bloomsbury, the School is offering courses, holidays, consultations with experts and much more, all aimed at helping people to explore ideas relevant to their lives. 

I co-wrote the Family course, which will be running for the first time in November. One of the most interesting things was thinking about family life from the perspective of a child, using some of the ideas I explored in The Baby in the Mirror. What does our understanding of memory development mean for theories about how we are affected by our family backgrounds? How does a child's emerging sense of self protect him from, and make him vulnerable to, the forces at work within the family? Do we remember those family influences accurately from the viewpoint of adulthood? What can we learn from the study of children's development when we become parents ourselves? 

The course will also look at how concepts of family, childhood and marriage have evolved over time, and consider how our familiar family structures are changing, and will continue to change, into the future. We will explore how the family can be a force for good and ill in our lives, and what we can do to make life inside and outside the family more satisfying and fulfilling. Full details on the course will be appearing on the website soon.  You can also join the School's Facebook group here

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Scissors, paper, stone

Isaac learned a new game today. The interesting thing about Rock, Paper, Scissors* is that each of the three possible selections is equally powerful: it defeats one other and is also defeated by one. The hand configurations are pretty transparent—'Paper' is flat like a sheet of paper, for example—making them easy for a four-year-old to pick up. The only other requirement is understanding the need to present your choice at exactly the same time as your opponent, so that neither of you gets an unfair preview. Simple rules and no props: the recipe for a popular game. 

I wrote a little in the book about the toddler Athena's developing understanding of rules: 
Armed with a rule, a little person can exert awesome control over a bigger one. ‘You have to run holding hands,’ she barks at me, as we while away some moments in a playground. ‘You have to stand at the top of the steps and when I reach the tree you can come down.’ A rule is not just Mummy or Daddy telling you to do something; it comes from somewhere transcendental, like God. Under the democracy of a rule, everyone is an equal.
As well as being a way of exerting control over others, rules provide a vital means of organising our own experience. They let you know where you are in the game. Rules are conditionals: if this, then that. Paradoxically, submitting yourself to their yoke is a profound liberation. By understanding what the rules are, Isaac knows when he has won—and lost. 

It's one thing to have a rule, but quite another to have a strategy. Athena has quickly worked out that Isaac will base his next play on whatever gesture was successful next time round. If he wins it with Rock, he will choose Rock himself next time. If Athena wins it with Paper, then he will copy her for the next bout. His big sister has sussed this, and is representing her opponent's strategy as a way of guiding her own selection. Although Isaac has sophisticated theory of mind abilities, he has not quite progressed as far as second-guessing his opponent's intentions, or trying to instigate double-bluffs. 

For him, a better strategy at the game might be to pick a gesture at random, and so prevent his opponent from getting any handle on his intentions. But children find randomness hard to understand. In a classic study, Piaget and Inhelder presented children with an experimental set-up which modelled raindrops falling on paving stones, and asked children to predict where the next drops would fall. They found that the children gave responses that credited rainfall with too much organisation. They would assign the same number of raindrops to each paving stone, creating patterns where none would be seen in nature.

Adults struggle with randomness too. The Piaget and Inhelder study reminds me of the story of a friend of mine who asked a builder to arrange some red and black floor-tiles in a random pattern. The builder was at a loss: he spent his life trying to impose order, regularity and precision, and going against system in this way was too much for him. Misunderstanding the laws of chance is a failing we are all prone to, as the gambler's fallacy demonstrates. In fact, one way of producing cognitive load in psychological experiments is to ask participants to generate random numbers or letters, a task which puts great strain on people's minds. Producing a truly random sequence of actions, where the randomness of the sequence is assessed by mathematical analysis, is something that most people would score poorly on. 

Perhaps it's the formalising power of rules, those recently acquired marshals of order, that makes Isaac prefer systematicity to blind chance. When he is allowed to cheat at dominoes, say by peeking at the pieces before choosing them, he goes for a pattern, such as taking all the doubles. That's actually a pretty bad hand for that game, and it's one example of his preference for order putting him at a disadvantage. Young children's actions may frequently seem haphazard, but removing all elements of order from their behaviour is something they won't achieve until later in life, if at all. 

*For me, as a child, it was always Scissors, Paper, Stone—hence the title of this post. 

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Haircut Trees

Deep in the Alto Alentejo, we are finding new terminologies for unfamiliar bits of landscape. Portugal produces half of the world's cork, and this sunscorched region is covered with the squat, silvery trees from which it is taken. "The haircut trees" is Isaac's name for the trees that have recently produced a harvest, with their orange-red underbark exposed in an odd kind of nakedness. He is thinking metaphorically. He notes a new phenomenon and wants to connect it to something he understands: the shedding of an overgrown covering, as in a haircut. Our ancestors probably thought in a similar way when they first named a flame tree or a spider plant, or first employed any of the other common names that have a similarly metaphorical root. 

Today he took the metaphorical connection to another level. Lacking a name for the eucalypts that give this part of Portugal a flavour of the Australian countryside, he extended his "haircut trees" label. The only connection that I can see between a stubby cork oak and a tall, skinny gum tree is that both are commonly short of bark. The name connects with the distinctive feature—the exposure of the tree's trunk—and brings both entities into his realm of comprehension. One connection leads to another, as he continues to loop together his conceptual network. 

When he's not indulging his passion for botany, he's having a typical four-year-old's holiday: swimming in the pool and smearing himself with ice-cream. It hasn't all been hard work. 

Friday, July 11, 2008

Find us on Facebook!

If you are a user of Blog Networks, you can link up to the blog here. If you have enjoyed the book, why not leave a review on Amazon?

We're off for a few days, so the next post might be from somewhere hot...

Saturday, July 5, 2008

An immortality of the flesh

If the kids get back in time from their trip to the theatre with their grandparents, we will be sitting down together tonight to find out the fate of the Doctor and his companions. In her blog post on the trauma of seeing our favourite Time Lord regenerate, Jane Graham mentions the conversation we had when she was interviewing me about The Baby in the Mirror. She was interested in what I had said in the book about children's understanding of sadness that goes beyond their own immediate needs. I had argued that grief is, cognitively speaking, an almost uniquely complex emotion. (Actually, it's pipped at the last minute by regret, but for that you'll have to read the book.)

My kids certainly get the same emotional hit from Doctor Who as that observed by Jane in her little girl. When the Doctor's daughter appeared to die at the end of her eponymous episode, there wasn't a dry eye in the living room. However, there are moments, when you are paying attention to young children's feelings, when you wonder whether they are really grasping the full emotional story. For Isaac in particular, the stirring music that always accompanies a televisual trauma is a powerful cue to what the characters are feeling. Those swelling strings tell him that something is going on that is bigger than his understanding, but whose language he already knows. 

What interests Jane in particular is the ethical question for us as parents. Mums and dads want to protect their children from trauma, so why let them watch things that will upset them? On balance, I agree with her that young children probably take more positives from these experiences than negatives. I argued in the book that children have the cognitive and emotional capacity to come to terms with death far earlier than Freud and others wanted us to believe. This may be in part because, as Paul Bloom has argued, they are dualists, wired up to see the body and spirit going different ways. 

Which just leaves me wondering what we will be left with tonight, once the Doctor has stopped pulsating on the floor of the Tardis. With supernatural beings such as Time Lords and Santa Claus, the facts of life after death become more complicated. The Doctor will still be the Doctor (if we have read the clues correctly), but he won't be the David Tennant Doctor. We will all have to get our heads around a certain immortality of the flesh. 

One thing we can be sure about, though, is that there will be more empathetic tears. I am as much of a blubberer as any of them, having once even been reduced to tears by an episode of Baywatch (it was those damned strings, I tell you). And we will probably have to rethink our ideas about the afterlife as well. A few months ago, Isaac was telling us that heaven is full of dragons, and how, when you get to heaven, you can't 'get died'. That sounds like a Doctor Who version of paradise. 

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Speaking up for babies

How far should we go in using infants and children for the purposes of entertainment or instruction? As a scientist, thinking through the ethical implications of developmental research, I am conscious of this question all the time. We never want to ask children to do anything, enjoyable or otherwise, unless there is a demonstrable scientific point to it. If the proposed study does not have the potential to advance knowledge, then the ethics committee considering it will not let it go ahead. 

The process of writing The Baby in the Mirror made me think about this question in a different way. Intruding on Athena's privacy might be reasonable if there were serious literary and scientific work to be done, but could it be justified in the cause of pure entertainment? I want the book to entertain, of course (the same ambition holds for this blog, in which I draw on both children's experience), but I also hope that readers will learn from it. Or is an enjoyable book its own justification? Is this an ethical question or an aesthetic one? 

One step that I have not been willing to take has been to submit to the more obvious designs of the television industry. I'm suspicious about the medium for a few reasons; above all, I suspect that any concerns for an educational outcome would likely get drowned out by the demands of primetime. After experiencing the tremendously sensitive way the Guardian and Sunday Herald handled our story, for example, I doubt that TV could similarly ensure our privacy and right to have a say in the portrayal. At least, that's the feeling I get from watching reality shows such as Child Of Our Time, in which the privacy of the families involved rarely seems anyone's top priority. 

The growth of reality TV has put more ordinary kids onto our screens than ever before. This week I got an alert on this topic from Zero To Three, the not-for-profit US-based organisation concerned with children in the first three years of life. The statement relates to a new NBC programme called "Baby Borrowers", in which five teenage couples will each briefly 'adopt' someone else's baby as part of a social experiment in fast-tracking adolescents into adulthood. In Zero To Three's view, the programme "exploits very young children in the pursuit of entertainment". 

The exploitation charge is a serious one, and one that I might have to answer to as well. I can't get all superior about the ethical treatment of child participants when, to some people's minds, I might have gone too far myself in turning the camera onto Athena so closely. I am also uneasy about passing judgement on a TV series I have not watched for myself. But Zero To Three's alarm call shows that some people at least are putting the rights, privacy and needs of children above all other concerns, and backing up that respect for babies and toddlers with good science. 

I was very touched by Paul Riddell's kind review in today's Scotsman. I hope there is a happy ending for him and his family as well.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Remembering and re-remembering

This post will be a bit of a try-out for a talk I am giving at the Memory Maps: Image, Place and Story conference in Cambridge next week. I will be asking what the study of memory development in early childhood can tell us about how minds represent familiar landscapes and respond imaginatively to them. The conference, hosted by CRASSH, will bring together writers, literary scholars and visual artists (plus a token psychologist: me) to investigate how the people we are, culturally and socially, determine how we respond to place, both in present time and in memory. The Memory Maps project began as a collaboration between the V&A and the Department of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies at the University of Essex. You can view the project's website here.

In time-honoured academic tradition, I won't know exactly what I am going to say on this topic until I ascend to the lectern. But my starting point is going to be the question I raised in an earlier post, about the extent to which our memories of childhood can ever come to us in an entirely fresh, untainted state, or whether there is always some mediation by earlier memories and representations. This is the first of the two kinds of mediation that interest me: the process by which later memories are usually filtered, tainted and distorted by earlier acts of recall. 

There is a second kind of mediation of memory, though, which relates to the way our other systems of representing the world play a role in remembering and re-remembering. Foremost among the vehicles of this kind of mediation are the words we use in public, in social interaction, and in private, as speech directed to the self. Readers of this blog will know that I have a particular interest in Vygotsky's views on these matters. As mentioned in an earlier post, Vygotsky's theory shows us a way of understanding how language restructures cognition in many different domains of thought. In the realm of memory, one question is whether by talking about past events with children, and thus constructing the basis for a memory that is already mediated by language, we help them to get a firmer grasp on those memories. Sure enough, researchers have found just such a link, as this extract from Chapter 12 shows: 
The psychologists Katherine Nelson and Robyn Fivush have shown that children get involved in conversations about past events from soon after their second birthdays, and gradually take on ever-greater responsibility for joint storytelling about the past. Furthermore, parents’ willingness or skill in supporting these dialogues has been shown to have a big effect on children’s developing storytelling abilities. Longitudinal studies, following the same samples of families over periods of time, show that parents who have an ‘elaborative’ style in their interactions have children who produce more sophisticated memory narratives. Adopting an elaborative style means producing orienting information (details on where the event occurred, and who the actors in the drama were) and evaluative information (all the emotional details of how things looked, seemed and felt that gave the event personal significance). More than simply reiterating the crucial information, our efforts were about allowing Athena to step back into the event and re-experience it. This was her drama, and we were helping her to take centre stage.
In the book, I use a spatial metaphor for this process of a self's finding its bearings in time. I liken it to a thread, looping from moment to moment like a string supports the beads of a necklace. The years of infancy and childhood are, as we well know, largely forgotten times. The escape from this amnesia seems to have much to do with children's ability to use words to tell stories about their own lives, and adults' sensitive support of this process. In this terra incognita, language gives children a golden thread to guide them.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Baby spreads her wings

News this week is that the book has been acquired by the Avery imprint of Penguin Group (USA), who aim to publish in April 2009. I'm planning to be in the States at that time for the SRCD Biennial Meeting. 

The book was featured in the Spectrum section of the Sydney Morning Herald last weekend. Thanks to Leigh for pointing me to that. 

A couple of new reviews in the UK this week, in the Guardian and the Sunday Telegraph

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Lessons for Father's Day

I was asked by the Financial Times' Life & Arts section to write the weekly piece they call The List. With Father's Day tomorrow, the idea was for me to reflect on five things fatherhood has taught me. You can read the piece here

Friday, June 13, 2008

Hard thinking

As he describes in his feature in the Sunday Herald, Barry Didcock came to visit us a few weeks ago to talk about some of the ideas that stimulated The Baby in the Mirror. I have always felt that the study of children's development forces us to think about the most fundamental questions about our existence: writing about children is writing about our humanity, not some simplified, bright-coloured version of it. Barry was ready to do some hard thinking too, which made him a great conversational partner. I was particularly interested that he picked up on my musings about behavioural genetics, a topic on which I originally intended to say much more in the book. What prevented me, in the end, was the point I noted in an earlier post. My focus in the book was very deliberately on one particular child, which meant that examining differences between children—the stuff of behavioural genetics—was hard to fit into the picture. Anyway, I recommend the writings of Eric Turkheimer on this topic; I hope I'll get to follow this up in some form in a future post.  

I have been writing about children this week, but not for the blog. Links will follow soon. 

Thursday, June 5, 2008


You can now listen to a podcast of the Newcastle launch by clicking here. You will hear me reading a bit from the book and talking about how it came about. Thanks to John from New Writing North for putting this up. 

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Strangely lush reflections

Thanks to Sass E-mum for reviewing the book on her blog, One Strangely Lush Mother. It was good to see that the bits on narrative, imagination, empathy and children's understanding of life and death struck such a chord. If you are open to suggestions about possible fieldwork, her questions for toddlers are an ideal starting point for exploring some of these ideas. 

On the point about toddlers' personalities, I'm not sure that my conclusions are really so clear-cut. Here's the passage from the book that Sass E-mum is referring to: 
Here’s another reason why her antics as a toddler may not cause her mortal embarrassment later in life. You weren’t the same person as an infant as you are now. That baby in those funny stories from your childhood: that wasn’t you. If it is true that toddlers don’t have personalities, then there is nothing for their future selves to be embarrassed about.
So much for the received wisdom (or at least one version of it). Here's what I go on to say: 
Witness, again, my fruitless quest to find small children appearing as characters in adult novels. There are babies in fiction, without any agency of their own but with plenty of scope to cause trouble for the women, and sometimes men, who are left holding them. There are a few brilliantly observed three-, four- and five-year-olds. But toddlers, as owners of the sorts of belief systems and emotions that drive fiction, are largely invisible. When choosing who to put into their narratives, writers seem not to believe that a toddler’s personality is up to the job. This is a striking irony in itself, given how much the little scientist moonlights as a little novelist. 
It also makes scant sense in light of parents’ oft-voiced convictions that they are watching a little personality unfold. For all that I have said about adults’ preconceptions and interpretations giving infants a leg-up into social interaction, one’s overwhelming impression as a parent—particularly a parent of two or more—is that one is watching the emergence of a character which is in many ways already partly formed. When Number One arrives, you try to mould her to your own image; when Number Two pops out, you see how determined Homo sapiens is to do its own thing. I have said little about the biological basis of Athena’s personality: the patterns of traits, preferences, habits and cognitive biases that carry the ghosts of her genetic inheritance. The science of behavioural genetics is all about explaining the differences between people in terms of their unique genetic endowment and their specific experiences. It is hard to focus on differences when your lens is trained on one particular child. If I asked the question again now, and thought about all the ways in which Athena differs from her brother, it might give me more of a handle on those aspects of her personality that had the force of biology behind them. I don’t know if I was right about her personality at age two. I don’t know if she is the same person now as she was then, any more than I know if I’m the same person I was when I was her current age. It is probably too soon to tell. But I know that she was a person. If this book makes any sense as a story, then that personality will have proved itself.
So I think I leave the question unresolved. I really don't know if she's the same person now as she was back then, or whether she will be the same person as a teenager or an adult. Time will tell. But she was certainly a person; and if my book helps people to perceive those little personalities a bit more clearly, then it will have done its job.