Sunday, November 29, 2009
Saturday, November 21, 2009
So I was pleased to rediscover a website called Parenting Science, which promises information on the science of parenting with full scientific back-up. The website is run by an anthropologist, Gwen Dewar, who cares about making sure that ideas about parenting are founded in properly referenced scientific findings. I'm sure that Gwen and I would disagree on a few things, but her site is a welcome antidote to the opinion dressed as science that parents are constantly being fed. Tear up your parenting books and get yourselves over there.
Friday, November 13, 2009
Saturday, November 7, 2009
The results of the analyses showed clear differences between the language groups. The French babies' cries spent longer on the rising part of the arc, and the German cries were skewed towards the falling part. These patterns match up to the particular prosodic patterns of the French and German languages, as demonstrated in other studies (and fully evident to listeners to those spoken languages).
There's nothing particularly new about a finding that foetuses can pick up and learn about auditory information in the womb. In my book, I describe an experiment conducted by Peter Hepper two decades ago, in which babies who had been exposed to the theme tune of the soap Neighbours showed a preference for that tune after they had been born. Plenty of other convincing evidence for foetal learning has been published since the time of Hepper's study. What is striking about this new study is that babies aren't just learning patterns in the womb, but they are also showing an ability to mimic them—which must call for some very sophisticated control over the articulatory system (the system of muscles that allows us to produce speech). Previous findings had shown vocal imitation at 12 weeks, but no earlier. Rather than just making a noise that is constrained by the respiratory (breathing) cycle, newborn babies are actually shaping the sound they make, and doing it in response to sounds they have already heard in the womb. This is particularly true of the French babies, with their 'rising' intonation—not the sort of cry you would hear if babies were simply vocalising their breaths.
In her comments to BBC News, study author Kathleen Wermke speculates that 'crying with an accent' may play a part in attracting the mother's attention and thus forging a bond with her. I was also interested in the comment by Debbie Mills of Bangor University, who questions whether this neonatal capacity for imitation might fall away shortly after birth only to return later in a different form. This 'inverse-U' trajectory of development is commonly observed in the first few months of life, with newborns showing capacities that they then lose, only to recover them again a few months later as different neural systems take responsibility for them.
(Mampe et al., Newborns’ Cry Melody Is Shaped by Their Native Language, Current Biology (2009),
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Thursday, October 8, 2009
Sometimes psychologists fake photographs in which a picture of their subject, in his or her childhood, appears in an unfamiliar setting, in places or with people who, in real life they have never seen. The subjects are amazed at first but then—in proportion to their anxiety to please—they oblige by producing a 'memory' to cover the experience that they have never actually had. I don't know what this shows, except that some psychologists have persuasive personalities, that some subjects are imaginative, and that we are all told to trust the evidence of our senses, and we do it: we trust the objective fact of the photograph, not our subjective bewilderment. It's a trick, it isn't science; it's about our present, not about our past.
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Monday, September 28, 2009
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Friday, August 28, 2009
Jad Abumrad from WNYC's brilliant Radiolab got in touch to say that the book had inspired some musings on the consciousness of his baby son, Amil. We had a fascinating conversation down an ISDN line, and you can listen to the resulting podcast here.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Cover of Mother's MilkI enjoyed Jenny Turner's essay review on mummylit and dadlit in last week's Guardian Review, and I would support her call for a bit less niceness in our writing and thinking about babies. I would part company from her on a couple of points, though. Firstly, I personally found little in the writings of the "post-Freudian baby theorists" (such as Winnicott) that took babies seriously on their own terms, rather than being a mouthpiece for a particular, adult-oriented theoretical perspective. Secondly, I think Turner picks a bad example of the supposed richness of a baby's experience. Edward St Aubyn's Mother's Milk is a delightful book in many ways, and many of its finest qualities relate to its treatment of children. But five-year-old Robert's memory of his own birth is incoherent, and pays no attention to the picture of infant consciousness that researchers have painstakingly drawn over recent decades.
Why had they pretended to kill him when he was born? Keeping him awake for days, banging his head again and again against a closed cervix; twisting the cord around his throat and throttling him; chomping through his mother's abdomen with cold shears; clamping his head and wrenching his neck from side to side; dragging him out of his home and hitting him; shining lights in his eyes and doing experiments; taking him away from his mother while she lay on the table, half-dead ...To the best of our knowledge, babies do not feel these events or form a conscious understanding of them in these ways. As I've noted elsewhere on this blog, it is highly unlikely that a five-year-old child would remember the events of his birth at all. This is a grown-up writer imagining what it would be like, as an adult, to go through the process of birth. It is not even true to a five-year-old child's understanding—which is the astonishing bit, given how carefully and sensitively Robert's consciousness is rendered elsewhere in the novel.
Monday, July 27, 2009
Image by BreckenPool via FlickrOver at Psychology Today, I've been writing about how young children learn some of the conventions of conversation. You can read the post here.
Monday, July 20, 2009
Friday, July 3, 2009
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Image via WikipediaLet's face it, an awful lot of nonsense is written about attachment. I shall save my concerns about the misuse of attachment ideas (particularly by the parenting industry) for another day, but for now I'm delighted to catch up with a study by Susan C. Johnson and colleagues, which demonstrates some rare right-minded thinking about this most important of topics.
The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, tackles a question that is close to my heart: the formation of internal working models (IWMs). According to the pioneering British psychiatrist John Bowlby, IWMs are psychological representations of how the social world functions, which work together with the instinctual attachment system to set the tone for the child's future social relationships. Nowadays psychologists use four attachment categories to describe the different attachment behaviours shown by infants: secure, insecure-avoidant, insecure-resistant and disorganised. Broadly speaking, each of these attachment categories is thought to be the product of a different type of IWM.
Until quite recently, IWMs had an odd, semi-mythical status in developmental psychology. Everybody accepted that they were important, but no one had caught sight of them. They show evidence of their works in behaviour (in infants' responses to separation and reunion in the Strange Situation, for example), and in representations of attachment relationships later in life. But their status as social-cognitive entities, about which we can do proper science, was uncertain.
The point of IWMs is that they give infants a blueprint for predicting what people will do in certain situations. I'm going to speak generally, partly for simplicity and partly because the study I want to mention did not distinguish among the three different insecure categories. Secure infants have expectations that caregivers will respond to emotional distress, while insecure infants' IWMs will not predict the same degree of responsivity. (In our own research, we are busy trying to pin down the precise differences and similarities between insecure-avoidant, insecure-resistant and disorganised infants' IWMs, but more of that another time.)
Johnson and colleagues wanted to know whether IWMs could be seen in action in contexts other than the Strange Situation. They used a habituation paradigm to measure babies' responses to different attachment-related events. Babies saw a couple of animated blobs, one large (the 'mother') and one small (the 'infant'), appearing together and then being separated by the mother blob moving away. The infant blob then made a human infant cry and started pulsating and bouncing. The question was how the experimental participants would react to the virtual infant's distress. Specifically, the researchers wanted to know whether the babies would be more interested in a 'responsive' outcome, where the mother returned to the infant, or an 'unresponsive' outcome, where the mother continued to move away from the infant.
The results supported Johnson et al.'s predictions. Secure-group babies looked longer at the unresponsive outcome compared to the responsive one, while no such difference was seen in the insecure group. In the context of research with babies, longer looking times are generally taken to be a sign of interest or surprise on the baby's part. The secure babies seemed to have a model of how the social world worked, to which the unresponsive event was a bad fit. Their blueprints for social interaction predicted that a mother would return to a distressed infant, and so they showed interest when that event did not happen.
We have much more to learn about the psychological models that underlie attachment behaviour. The Johnson et al. study is a valuable attempt to apply the methods of infancy research in tracking those models back to the earliest days of the attachment relationship. When talking about attachment, it is best to stick to the facts—and here are some welcome new ones.
Sunday, June 21, 2009
Friday, June 19, 2009
Image by kingary via FlickrHave you ever fed a baby? Put a mental camera on yourself while you do so. If you're anything like me, you'll find that you're instinctively making your own mouth do the things you want the infant to do. Open wide, that's it; wrap those lips around the morsel; close them up and swallow. In fact, I would defy you to keep your own mouth closed while meeting this abiding challenge of parenthood: getting some nosh down your little one's gullet.
What's the explanation? Some evolved mechanism for automatically modelling eating actions, to ensure that those who depend on us are well fed? Something to do with mirror neurons? In acting out the eating, I am configuring my own facial muscles in the way I want the toddler to do. That means that, at some level, I must be mapping the features and actions of my own body on to his. Generally I think mirror neurons are a little overrated (I do not see, for example, how they can be anything more than a useful platform for social cognition and theory of mind) but here's something they could be helping out with.
I've noticed that the reflective feeding effect generalises, too. When you are helping a toddler to brush her teeth, you will probably find that you are sometimes contorting your lips in the way you want the child to do. The problem with the 'modelling' theory is that it suggests that this behaviour is intentional; that we parents are doing this for a purpose, to show the child how the thing should be done. It could be something much more reflexive, unconscious and automatic: a by-product of evolution, psychological development, or both.
Then, the other day, I noticed Isaac doing the same thing. He was feeding me a bit of ice lolly and mouthing the grateful acceptance he wanted my mouth to show. He's five, but he too was unable to suppress this instinct to model the feeding process. It's not only parents who can't keep their own selves still. My hunch is that the effect is specific to actions that involve the face and mouth, but I could well be wrong about that. What do readers think?
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Monday, May 25, 2009
Image by Christine ™ via FlickrAs you might have guessed from the previous post, I have been writing about how exposure to digital recording technologies might affect children's developing memory and sense of self. This has also given me a chance to reflect on how Athena and Isaac might have been affected by the attention they've received. You can read the final piece (which appeared this weekend in the FT) here. As ever, I'd love to know your thoughts.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Image via WikipediaOne question came up a few times at the readings last week, and it's not the familiar one about what Athena will make of all the attention. Is there a chance, some people asked me, that Isaac will be miffed that I didn't write a book about him? Am I guilty of parental favouritism, by omitting to give him the same treatment that I gave his big sis?
FOR CORA,with apologies for this book being about MadeleineAND FOR MADELEINE,with apologies for the same reason
Saturday, May 16, 2009
Image via WikipediaThanks to everyone who came along to the events in London this week. I had some great conversations and had to deal with some searching questions, some of which I'll try to answer in more detail in future posts.
I recently spoke to Dr Alvin Jones for his radio show in Durham, NC. You can listen to our conversation by going to his website and scrolling down until you see the US jacket cover. Click on the image and you should hear the recording.
Friday, May 8, 2009
Thursday, May 7, 2009
Image by Brian Negus via FlickrAt bedtimes, we have been reading Michael Morpurgo's tale of blindness and Arthurian legends, The Sleeping Sword. Isaac is fascinated by my half-remembered recounting of the tales of King Arthur, but he is less impressed with my account of the legendary king's ontological status. He wants to know what Arthur looked like, where he lived and when.
'Well,' I say, 'if he was a real person then he probably lived about fifteen hundred years ago...'
'But was he a real person?'
'I don't know.'
'But you must know.'
'I don't. I don't know if there was such a person as King Arthur or not. Some people think there was, and some people think he was just a story.'
'But someone must know.'
'No. No one knows for sure.'
'Does God know?'
I dodge this. I could imagine us having the same conversation about Him Upstairs. What intrigues me is Isaac's conviction that, even if a particular individual doesn't have access to all the facts, someone out there must do. There is a fact of any matter, and at least one individual who holds the key. It's hard to imagine, but we might one day find incontrovertible proof of King Arthur's existence (or otherwise). Then Isaac's demand for definite knowledge will be met. Until then, there is Uncertainty: a great shifting intangible mass of it. It might frustrate his five-year-old mind, but it's the kind of thrilling sense of being out of step with the facts that might, one day, make a scientist.
Thursday, April 30, 2009
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
We spent last weekend building a board for Isaac's electric train set, and now we're practising running one train into the siding while the other loops around the main circuit. Isaac wants to run them both together and 'have a race'. Which engine will go faster? The bigger one, obviously. It's a battle between the Mallard (which any schoolchild knows was the fastest steam engine ever built) and a dumpy diesel-electric tank engine. No contest, then, in Isaac's view.
It reminds me of Piaget's Genevan studies on time, speed and distance. Claiming to have been put up to the challenge by Albert Einstein, with whom he had once shared an academic symposium, Piaget wanted to know whether children based their judgements of speed and distance on their reckoning about time, or whether their ideas about motion were more fundamental. Here's how I describe those experiments in the book:
Picking up on Einstein’s challenge, Piaget’s Genevan researchers presented children with various scenarios involving moving objects, such as clockwork snails crawling across a table, or two small dolls which were made to pass through tunnels of unequal length. Preoperational children would get hopelessly confused by questions about ‘how long’ and ‘how far’. Failing to take differences in speed, or starting and stopping points, into account, they might judge that something that had travelled further had also been travelling for more time. Slightly older children could use information about relative speed, such as the fact that one doll had overtaken another, but still tended to answer questions about temporal order in terms of spatial order: that is, interpreting questions about ‘before’ and ‘after’ in terms of distance rather than time.Our own experiment is not a particularly accurate reprise of those classic Genevan studies. The relative speeds of our two engines actually seem to be changing constantly: one minute the Mallard is outstripping the tank engine, and the next the smaller loco is making all the running. Isaac is excited; I'm plain emotional. Much of what we've arranged here comes from my old boyhood train set, some of which in turn dates back to a train set from the 1950s. Thirty years ago I packed a handful of tiny black track pins into a Freightliner container, thinking 'They'll be useful again one day.' Today I'm sifting them in my clumsy, grown-up fingers, and reflecting on the foresight of that long-ago ten-year-old.
Monday, April 20, 2009
Image by Ed Yourdon via FlickrHow much are children attuned to the troubles of the world? Quite a lot, it seems. A report out today, based on 1000 face-to-face interviews with six- to twelve-year-olds, shows that concerns about the global recession are topping the lists of children's reported worries. Fears of violence to self and others also loom large in children's lives, with 30% of respondents saying that the bullying was a problem.
I wasn't surprised to read about these young people's attunement to economic and political realities. A paper due out soon in the journal Infant and Child Development reports some work done by my graduate student, Sarah Laing, on children's fears, worries and ritualistic behaviours in middle childhood and adolescence. For her study, Sarah devised an in-depth interview in which 142 children aged between seven and sixteen rated how intensely they felt fears and worries about a range of topics, as well as getting an opportunity to come up with their own items of concern. We found that worry, as opposed to fear, was particularly strongly related to children's performance of ritualistic behaviours, such as bedtime routines—suggesting that these sorts of behaviours may provide children with a way of coping with high anxiety. We also found that bullying and harm befalling a loved one were prominent on children's lists of worries, a pattern that was clear right across the age range.
Sarah's study also showed that the anxieties of the age were finding their way into children's emotional worlds. Sarah collected her data in December 2004, when the war in Iraq was raging. The war was the most intense of all sources of worry for the 11–12-year-old age group, ranking as highly as worry about harm befalling a loved one. The good news is that fear and worry become less intense as children get older, although we found a surge in intensity at the end of adolescence, as (presumably) the realities of adulthood press ever more strongly.
I'm happy to send readers a preprint of the paper if they'd like to see it.
Friday, April 17, 2009
Image via WikipediaThose who are following the book on Twitter will have noticed this new development. Why anti-parenting? I think I'm simply trying to underline the point about this not being a parenting book, but rather an exhortation to use science and imagination to reach a better understanding of where small children are coming from. I'm hoping the tweets will be daily(ish).
Thursday, April 16, 2009
Monday, April 6, 2009
Sunday, April 5, 2009
Thursday, April 2, 2009
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
Image via WikipediaThe primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy is interviewed in the New York Times about her new book on cooperative parenting. Babies call out social responses in us, and are themselves amazingly responsive to those reactions. Coupled with humans' neoteny, or extended period of immaturity, that means that human mothers rely on sharing out the work of parenting to conspecifics who are not family. In Hrdy's view, many features of our social cognition evolved in response to the pressures of being cooperative breeders. If you're going to hand your baby over to your neighbour, you need to be sure what she is thinking.
That's why babies are cute, the evolutionary psychologist would say. It's not enough for there to be trust on the part of the mother; there needs to be some inherent attraction in the idea of taking over someone else's childcare. The system wouldn't work unless babies called out the right social responses. Watch any social gathering in which a newborn is being handed around, and you'll see the frenzy for yourself. Many would have suspected it anyway, and here is a new scientific perspective on the phenomenon: infants are the glue that holds society together.
(Click on the carousel at the bottom right to see more about Hrdy's book.)
Monday, March 16, 2009
Readers will know that Isaac is quite the philosopher. Having reached the limits of my knowledge about death, God and whether a cheetah can run faster than a car, he is turning his thoughts to the cosmos. And I'm learning how little I know. In the International Year of Astronomy, that would seem to be timely problem to fix. I wouldn't mind starting with Christopher Potter's voyage around the cosmos, 'You are Here' (see the carousel, bottom right, for a link). You can read a Guardian interview with Potter here.
As with many who have mused on the stars, Potter's fascination began in childhood. As I describe in my own book, understanding where you fit in to the universe is just part of children's general project of making sense of where they are in time and space. But the research I describe in Chapter 13 ('The Young Doctor Who') also suggests that knowledge about cosmology might progress relatively independently of other kinds of knowledge, such as biology or physics. Turning to the heavens may not necessarily be a sign that a child is fully conversant with the rules of life on earth. Knowledgeable he may be about the moons of Jupiter and the death of stars, but Isaac still gets hopelessly confused about whether he can go round to play with his friend Elina in Australia. As Potter might agree, you can be a poet of the heavens while still treading clumsily on the earth.