Why our children see more than we do

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Like the characters in C.S Lewis’ Chroncles of Narnia, research indicates that smaller children experience many things which adults can no longer see…

 

From the Wild Lands in the North, to the Great Deserts in the South, and the Majestic River of Telmar in the West, to the High Castle of Cair Paravel in the East, the land of Narnia is an extraordinary region populated by centaurs, dragons, talking animals and all manner of wonders which no adult human may ever see.

And although no adult may set foot in the land of Narnia, children, may enter into it through the famous wardrobe… as Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter famously discover in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.

But they can do this only as long as they remain children.

It is with sadness that we see first Susan and Peter, then Edmund, and Lucy each learn that, beyond a certain age, they will never be able to return to Narnia.

This narrative of expulsion from paradise is as old as the story of the Garden of Eden, or the myth of “The Golden Age.”

Indeed, most adults, at some level would feel that the adult world somehow lacks the magic, the wonder and the sheer sense of possibility they once experienced as children.

We tend to see the cultural acclimatisation and education of our children as a process of opening their minds to more and more knowledge.

However, recent developments in neuroscience suggest that the opposite is in fact the case.

Because, extraordinary as it may seem, it is now clear that our awareness of the world around us, rather than expanding, in certain key areas, actually diminishes, as we grow older, and we become more socially acclimatised to the needs of our own particular tribe or social grouping.

Because, whilst education and the development of the social brain enable us to find our niche in society, this process is often at the expense of significant cognitive abilities.

To put it bluntly: we become blinded to anything other than that which our mother culture defines as reality.

We are each of us, born with around 100 billion neurons in our brains… to imagine how enormous this is, just think that this is about the same as the number of stars in the Milky Way.

And in a child’s first years of life, the brain is constantly being sculpted by its cultural surroundings, as it refines its circuits in response to environmental experiences.

Since brain circuits organize and reorganize themselves in response to an infant’s interactions with his or her environment, the synapses—the points where neurons connect—are either built and strengthened, or weakened and pruned away as needed (This process is often catchily described as “the neurons that fire together wire together”.)

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In her 2011 TED talk, “The Linguistic Genius of Babies,” Kuhl describes this process as babies going from being “citizens of the world,” to becoming “language-bound” members of their own tribal grouping.

Patricia K. Kuhl is a Professor of Speech and Hearing Sciences at the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington. She specializes in language acquisition and the neural bases of language. Using magneto encephalography (MEG, a relatively new technology that measures magnetic fields generated by the activity of brain cells) Kuhl has, for the first time in human history, been able to show just how babies acquire language.

All spoken languages consist of basic units of sound, called phonemes, these phonemes combine together to form syllables. For example, in English, the consonant sound “t” and the vowel sound “o” are both phonemes that combine to form the syllable “to” as in “tomato”.

In total there are more than 200 phonemes, representing all the sounds that the human voice can create. But most languages use only a fraction of this number. In some languages it can be as few as 15, whilst in English it is over 40.

Patricia K. Kuhl discovered that before 8 months of age, the neurons in a baby’s brain could recognise the phonemes of any language on the planet.

After this point, they quickly learn to ignore the vast majority of phonemes and concentrate only on those used in their native language. And within a few months they have lost this ability altogether.

In her 2011 TED talk, “The Linguistic Genius of Babies,” Kuhl describes this process as babies going from being “citizens of the world,” to becoming “language-bound” members of their own tribal grouping.

(Intriguingly, similar tests done on adults show that these neurons continue to fire in recognition of all 200 phonemes, when presented with any “foreign” language. However this information is no longer processed consciously. So the listener is not aware that they can “hear” them.)

Similarly, in the visual domain, it has been shown that very young babies have cognitive abilities that become lost as they begin to grow into their culturally acclimatized selves.

According to a study led by Olivier Pascalis, a psychologist at England’s University of Sheffield, human babies start out with the ability to recognize a wide range of faces, even among races or species different from their own.

The study focused on the ability to recognize and categorize faces, determine identity and gender, and read emotions. The findings suggest that, in humans, whether or not you have this ability, is a question of “use it or lose it.”

Michelle de Haan, one of the study's authors, said: "We usually think about development as a process of gaining skills, so what is surprising about this case is that babies seem to be losing ability with age. This is probably a reflection of the brain's 'tuning in' to the perceptual differences that are most important for telling human faces apart and losing the ability to detect those differences that are not so useful."
Michelle de Haan, one of the study’s authors, said: “We usually think about development as a process of gaining skills, so what is surprising about this case is that babies seem to be losing ability with age.This is probably a reflection of the brain’s ‘tuning in’ to the perceptual differences that are most important for telling human faces apart and losing the ability to detect those differences that are not so useful.”

In the study six-month-old infants were able to recognize the faces of individuals of either different races or even different species—in this case, monkeys. Something, which most adults cannot do.

Babies who received specific visual training retained the ability. But those with no training lost the skill altogether by the time they were nine months old.

This is because by the time they’re nine months old, face recognition is based on a much narrower model, one that is based on the faces they see most often.

This more specialized view, in turn, diminishes our early ability to make distinctions among other species, and other races. For instance, if an infant is exposed to mainly Asian faces, he or she will grow to become less skilled at discerning among different, say, Caucasian faces.

Michelle de Haan, one of the study’s authors, said: “We usually think about development as a process of gaining skills, so what is surprising about this case is that babies seem to be losing ability with age.

“This is probably a reflection of the brain’s ‘tuning in’ to the perceptual differences that are most important for telling human faces apart and losing the ability to detect those differences that are not so useful.”

Even if children were not to lose such cognitive abilities as they “tune in” to their contextual cultural norms, we also know that a large part of their cultural acclimatsation  would prevent them from expressing views that are at odds with the social groupings in which they find themselves.

Even when we see the world differently, our adult brains have all too often been wired to keep our thoughts to ourselves.

Research conducted by Solomon Asch of Swarthmore College has clearly demonstrated the degree to which an individual’s own opinions will conform to those of the group in which he finds himself.

Whilst the Research conducted by Stanley Milgram of Yale has shown how likely people are to obey authority figures even when their orders go against their own personal morality.

Perhaps this is why we love the ability of children to speak the truth. To say what we have all been thinking, even though it is not culturally acceptable.

After all it is the child who is not blinded by culture, who on seeing the Emperor’s New Clothes says “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”….

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