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. 

The movie of the book!

Here it is at last. Thanks to Rhett for putting it together. 

Friday, May 23, 2008

What the mad scientist did next

I have had a fun week talking about the book in various radio studios. Several interviewers have asked me about my apparently superhuman efforts to record, on video, every word and action that Athena made. This is an issue on which I have been pleased to set the record straight. I drew on about twenty hours of video recordings in telling Athena's story, which is probably about average for a modern, digitally scrutinised family. There was a period of about a year, when we were between camcorders, when I hardly took any video at all. The notetaking might have been unusual, but the use of a camera wasn't. 

It raises an interesting question, though, which came up at the Newcastle launch of the book. Even supposing that the attention I have given her has not screwed her up, is there any sense in which having this detailed record of her early life will distort her later memory? Will she find that her own recollections will be too heavily skewed towards those that I chose to set down, for example; will she be less likely to trust memories that aren't in the book? I think this is a difficult question, but surely one that all parents who own a video camera will have to address. Modern childhoods are being recorded from all angles, mediated by digital technology and endlessly replayed. When I started doing developmental research in the early 1990s, we had to go to some lengths to ensure that the kids we were working with were comfortable with the idea of being videoed. Nowadays, the camcorder is so much part of the family that toddlers, on the whole, do not bat an eyelid at the appearance of the little silver box. 

When I was small, the cine camera came out on high days and holy days, and there would be some grainy footage of me in my cowboy outfit, galloping down the street on my hobby horse. Even rarer were the occasions when we would gather as a family, dim the lights and watch these little cinematic marvels. Perhaps that left space for memories which, in the constant glare of a camcorder, would not have survived. I don't know. My parents divorced when I was six; I have almost blanket amnesia for that period of my life. Perhaps the presence of a Canon or JVC would have given me a firmer root in it. 

Monday, May 19, 2008

The spirit of Piaget

Simon Ingsreview in the Sunday Telegraph made some excellent points about the difficulty of writing about toddlers' minds:
This is the problem: babies are bags of bits. They acquire and mislay abilities at a dizzying rate. Development is not a series of lessons learned. Some babyish 'abilities', such as stepping and swimming, are primitive reflexes that vanish shortly after birth, swamped beneath a welter of fumbling experiments in gross motor control. Babies actually forget how they originally recognised faces, and reacquire the skill using a different part of the brain. It's frustrating: toddlers get up to all sorts of new tricks, but do not seem to grasp them in any obvious or convenient order. At around eight months they learn how to use thumb and forefinger to pick up an object - yet they don't yet know how to let go.
Here's how I make a similar point in the book: 
Children’s minds are not like computers which, armed with a software upgrade or new memory chip, deliver enhanced performance across the board. They are assemblies of disparate skills and quasi-theoretical knowledge systems which rattle along, helping each other out when the need arises. Sometimes children use a theory developed in one domain, such as social reasoning, to solve problems in another, such as physical causation.
Ings is right, then, to say that babies are 'bags of bits'. You can't expect to find some general principle that explains why they come to do what they do when they do, and then sometimes lose the capacity again temporarily. To put it another way, we can't hope to have a general theory of development which explains all the different things we need to explain. Far more likely is that we will be stuck with a mishmash of disparate theorylets, each restricted to a particular narrow domain. Got a theory for how toddlers come to represent the intentions of others, or for how babies use visual feedback in correcting their reaching movements? Fine! Just don't expect it to explain anything else. 

This is how the spirit of Piaget has most tested modern developmental psychologists. Here is Alison Gopnik
Once upon a time, thanks to Jean Piaget, the field of cognitive development had a coherent, interesting, testable, and widely accepted theory. Now, alas, we are back in the preparadigmatic boat with our colleagues in the rest of psychology, with theory fragments, almost-theories, and pseudotheories bobbing about around us. 
We had a grand developmental theory, Gopnik is saying, but it didn't last. It couldn't quite match up to the sheer complexity of children's minds. Instead, we need to find different theoretical tools for each explanatory task, and be glad that we can explain, in separate and circumscribed ways, at least some of the varied abilities that babies and toddlers display. 

This is actually a slightly different point to the one that Ings is making. Fragmentation of abilities does not have to entail fragmentation of theory. As the modern proponents of dynamic systems theory have shown, you can have a system based on some simple underlying principles which nevertheless behaves in an apparently chaotic and back-to-front way. Piaget actually had no problem with the idea that children sometimes have to go backwards to go forwards. In fact, he and his followers showed that development is littered with U-shaped curves, as they have become known. It is a story that is familiar to developmental neuroscientists such as Mark Johnson, who (as in the example given by Ings) have shown that backward steps in development are often simply the result of one brain system taking over a function previously performed by another. 

There is another sense, Ings notes, in which I owe a debt to the great psychologist: 
The spirit of Jean Piaget - the Swiss psychologist who turned a father's fascination with his offspring into a fertile natural science - hovers over this book. When Fernyhough needs to sum up an idea about development quickly and accurately, he looks to his daughter, and ... simply tells us what he sees: the look of comic concentration with which Athena registers the effects of an action; the surreal cack-handedness of her first jokes.
I certainly don't deserve the comparison with Piaget, but I did want the book to be driven by observation rather than theory or prescription

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Publication day

The Baby in the Mirror is officially published in the UK today. See an earlier post for details of publication dates in other territories. 

Translation rights have so far been sold for Italian and Korean. 

We are launching the book tonight at Blackwell's in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Do come along if you can!

When this busy period comes to an end I promise to get back to some proper posts about children's minds... Do please keep your comments coming. 

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Day of the big picture

Many things pleased me about the feature in Saturday's Guardian, including the chance it gave to see our family set-up through someone else's eyes. We hoped the piece would show that the Fernyhoughs are actually fairly normal, or as normal as a family can be with two psychologists around the table. I thought the journalist, Viv Groskop, captured our family atmosphere with style and humour.

The children are, I'm pleased to report, rather unimpressed by all the attention. As the feature relates, I have been keen to keep Athena on board with the project from the start. Perhaps too keen, on occasion. I ask her how she feels about seeing her name and picture in a newspaper which thousands of people will read, and she sighs. Conspicuously impatient with my fussing over her feelings, she cocks a finger at her own expression; this face is most definitely not bothered.

The biggest talking-point within the family, though, has got to be the dress Athena is wearing in the main photograph. When I speak to my Auntie Chris on the phone, she tells me that she's sure a piece of it ended up in the patchwork she has been working on. She has been working on this patchwork for about twenty years, so it would perhaps be more surprising if it hadn't ended up in there. I talk to my sister about it, and we work out that it's actually a hand-me-down from Athena's cousin, Lucy. We have never gone quite as far as they do in the kiddie fash-mags, and decked the offspring out in designer labels from head to toe, but we've always tried to supply our little ones with nice new clothes. And now our big spread in a national newspaper shows our first-born wearing a cast-off dress, probably because she had grown out of all the others. Thus are ordinary necessities captured for ever, when no one is looking.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Confessions of a house-husband

I've stayed at home today, working on a novel and cooking pasta carbonara for the returning troops: Isaac from nursery, Athena from school, and Lizzie from a day's toil at the university. We are just settling down for dinner when Isaac wonders: 

'Do only mummies work?'

'No, darling,' his mother replies helpfully. 'Daddy works too. But he works at home a lot of the time. He doesn't go out to work in an office like Mummy does.'

I went through this with his sister, of course. She had ideas about what I did for a living, but little in the way of tangible product to point to. In the chapter 'Believe Me', I look at some of the connections between language, imagination and children's theory of mind (their understanding of the mental states of themselves and others). Some have argued that children's theory of mind is really like a theory, a set of hypotheses which can be tested out through the gaining of more and more information about how people think and behave. Another view, known as simulation theory, holds that children come to understand other minds by learning how to project themselves, through imagination, into the point of view of another person. In the chapter, I argue that Athena must be doing something like this, as she tries to  imagine my lonely hours of writing:
I try to think what that means to her. To do that, I have to project myself imaginatively into her shoes; I have to perform a quick mental audit of what she understands (the long walks, the hours spent hunched over a notebook) and what she doesn’t. For that brief moment that I am trying to get into her head, I have to enter her perspective as I would try to enter that of a character in a work of fiction. I have to novelise her. Perhaps that is what she is trying to do as well. In order to read my mind, she has to novelise me as I am novelising her: work out where I am coming from, and then run a sort of mental simulation of my point of view, asking herself what she would do if she were standing where I’m standing. Some have argued that this is precisely what mind-reading requires: the simulation of another person’s thought processes on your own mental apparatus. In which case, theory of mind is a misnomer. It has more to do with fiction-writing than it does with science.
Back to the novel, then. Anyway, I can tell Isaac that I've earned my keep this week. There are launches to plan, publicity materials to work on, and emails to send to Lindsay, my brilliant publicist. It's been great fun thinking about the big themes of the book in new ways and in different modes of presentation. Check back soon, for The Baby in the Mirror: The Movie. 

Monday, May 5, 2008

Available now!

In the UK, at least. The book is now available from Amazon (click the link on the right) and from all good bookshops. 

Official publication date is 15 May, which is when the book will be launched in Newcastle

Publication date for Australia and New Zealand is set for 10 July. The book is published in Canada on 15 June. 

Full details on the book—reviews, extracts, event information, etc.—are available here

Thursday, May 1, 2008

I, me, repeated

Why The Baby in the Mirror? Well, it's about a close-up view of small children, of course, an attempt to reflect an under-examined part of our lives back at us. But the title also points at what became a big theme for me in the writing of this book: the child's construction of a self. Mirrors have a practical importance for the developmental psychologist, to go with their metaphorical ones. Those big, silver-backed bits of glass are some of the tools we use for finding out what infants understand about themselves. 

I knew I was on to something with this book title when I looked on YouTube for examples of babies looking at themselves. Here's Joey. From the wobbly way he's standing, I guess he's around eight months:  

Next up in my unscientific sample we have a five-month-old, who is vocalising nicely, and also doing that thing I describe in the book of trying to grab the frame of the mirror and pull it closer, as if his reflection were an object that could be possessed:

Check out the motherese in this clip too.

Little Isaac (not my own) clearly shows the 'flutter of jubilant activity' which Lacan described in relation to babies' responses to their own reflections:

I'm not very kind to Lacan in the book, but he was right about the intensity of babies' emotional reactions to the sight of their own reflections. 

All of these babies look to me as though they see the reflection in the mirror as another individual, separate from themselves. In other words, they show the same understanding that Darwin described in his infant son, Doddy: 
When four and a half months old, he repeatedly smiled at my image and his own in a mirror, and no doubt mistook them for real objects; but he showed sense in being evidently surprised at my voice coming from behind him. Like all infants he much enjoyed thus looking at himself, and in less than two months perfectly understood that it was an image; for if I made quite silently any odd grimace, he would suddenly turn round to look at me. He was, however, puzzled at the age of seven months, when being out of doors he saw me on the inside of, a large plate-glass window, and seemed in doubt whether or not it was an image.
At six months, Doddy shows an understanding of the physics of reflection: he knows that the image of his father is connected to the real person standing behind him. But he doesn't yet fully connect the baby in the mirror with his own self. Here's how I describe Athena's behaviour at about the same age, as she is being held up close to the wardrobe mirror: 
Her eyes are wide. She stares at her reflection and then darts a couple of glances into the corners of the mirror, as though establishing the limits of this weird version of reality. Then she reaches forward excitedly, patting at the glass with both hands. There is a gleeful shout, a smile of pleasure, but her eyes are still active, looking the reflected stranger up and down in what could almost be taken for suspicion. She stays rapt like this for quite a while. She may be noting the connection between her own actions and those she sees reflected: when I bat my hands forward like that, the baby in the mirror does it too. From the inside, from the sense that she has of her own body’s movements and position, she has information about what she is doing; and now the mirror reflects the same information back at her. She can imitate its imitations. She recognises that this specular creature has something to do with herself, and no one else. At the same time, she knows that it is not her; it exists in a different location, flat against our old walnut-wood wardrobe, and it does its corresponding at a distance.
We then try the famous 'rouge test'. One of us surreptitiously dabs a smear of rouge onto Athena's nose, and we wait for her reaction. She shows the same interest in the baby in the mirror, but pays no particular attention to the blob of make-up, nor attempts to wipe it off. She would rub her nose if it was hurting: she knows where it is, and she knows how to reach it. But she doesn't realise that the nose in the mirror is that same nose, the one attached to her. 

Children don't pass this test of mirror self-recognition until around the time they start walking. Back to YouTube. Here's Kyle (sans culottes) passing the rouge test: 

This is how I describe this stage in the book: 
At fourteen months, faced with her reflection in the same mirror, her first action is to say her own name. This next stage of mirror self-recognition, known as ‘identification’, coincides with the beginnings of the use of language in a self-referring way. The baby in the mirror is Athena. She names her, gives a little embarrassed chuckle, and makes a big sigh, as though, after all these patient months of waiting for her self to turn up, it has finally done so. She glances at the mirror’s edge, then sings a brief, funny tune to her reflection. She touches the glass, but this time the gesture is about communication rather than exploration. She reaches her arms wide, trying to embrace the whole of the image, then leans forward and gives it a kiss. Poised with her red-blotched tissue, Lizzie tries the rouge test again. Her nose newly spotted, Athena looks back at her image, glances away, then does a double take, gazing back at herself with more purpose. She looks at her mother, touching her nose, then turns to the mirror again.
‘Look!’ she says, with genuine surprise.
‘What is it?’ Lizzie asks.
Athena looks back at her with a big grin. The test has become a game. She bats at the spot in the mirror, then touches her own blotched features. She is doing something quite remarkable: seeing herself as others see her, and somehow identifying herself with the image. More than that, she is mapping specific parts of that image—its nose, in this case—onto the parts of her own person. She is showing that she understands the image as an image, a representation of the thing rather than the thing itself. On top of that, she understands that the image is real, not a fantasy or hallucination. For the French psychologist Henri Wallon, this was a vitally important step in the growth of the imagination. After experience of the mirror, the world that the child experiences is no longer a purely perceptual one; it is one that contains representations. Once reality can be represented, it can become transformed through imagination into anything at all.
Finally, in an earlier post I talked about the evolutionary significance of mirror self-recognition. Here's a bonobo, proving that it's not an exclusively human ability: