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