Category Archives: UNL / Genetic Development

Learning About People and Things

What world do babies think they are in?

Most of this reaction paper is dedicated to examining some claims the authors make about the permanence of objects. I attempt to understand their reasoning, present an alternative rival hypothesis, and then describe a short experiment which may help resolve the issue.

The world of babies is closer to ours than we previously believed. There is not a “blooming, buzzing confusion” (Gopnik, Melzoff, & Kuhl, 65) for newborns. Rather they are equipped with mental modules that allow them to distinguish shapes (64), read lips (69), and many of others. However, babies can still have strange ideas about the nature of invisible objects. On page 81, the authors write that babies “assume that an object that traces a particular path of movement is the same object” but that “young babies are not particularly interested if a blue toy car goes in one edge of a screen and a yellow toy duck emerges at the far edge on the same trajectory!” Such a view does not make sense if one lives in a world of three dimensions, height, width, and depth, that extend to infinity and are identical in their nature. Yet such unusual beliefs become natural if very young children hold one of two views of space.

The baby’s belief make sense with the addition of bounded space. As adults, we assume that space as we know it exists beyond what we can see. As I am writing this, for instance, I assume that the entryway (which is separated from me by a wall and by an glass door) exists in the same manner regardless of it is behind the glass door or behind the wall. Thus babies may believe in our three dimensions, but add a divide between the finite space they know and transfinite space where unknown rules may apply.

Another possibility is that babies use a different coordinate system all together. Imagine that babies understand three dimensions: pitch (rotation about the vertical axis), roll (rotation about the horizontal axis), and extension (distance). Unlike our understand of dimensions, which are in absolute terms (five feet up, six feet over, seven feet across) these values would be fractional. So instead of having to map an object in our dimensions system, an object would be 50% up, 50% over, and 50% extended.

These systems give different predictions of how children understand the permanence of objects that are out of sight. In a traditional system, the difference is from a magical to a scientific world view However, a roll x pitch x extension system is closer to a child’s discovery of negative numbers. Instead of having to discover a whole new world out there, the child merely realizes that extension can go beyond 100% in a way that roll and pitch cannot.

Early, I mentioned that authors describe an experiment with a car that becomes a duck at after occulting itself while maintaining a fixed velocity. The experiment is odd in that implies babies understand objects to have a permanence of speed while not a permanence of shape. I believe that these two systems of coordinates give different predictions about the behavior of small children in a modification of the experiment. The difference relies on how distance is understood in the two systems, and the fact that babies understand perspective (se the discussion on “size constancy” on page 68). Create a series of blinds such than an object becomes visible and invisible in succession such that the distance between the baby alternates between five feet and ten feet, and make the object change shape from a duck to a car. Have backdrops behind the toy that are either immediately behind or or twice the distance away.

Then present the following sequence of vistas, in (toy distance, backdrop distance, toy) format: (5 ft, 10 ft, duck), (10 ft, 20 ft, car), (5 ft, 20 ft, duck), (10 ft, 10 ft, car). If the baby understands distance in absolute terms, this pattern should habituate relatively quickly (as a 5 foot distance gives a duck and a 10 foot distance gives a car). However, if the baby understands distance in terms of distance relative to the backdrop, the pattern is more surprising: 50% gives a duck, then 50% gives a car, then 25% gives a duck, then 100% gives a car. Then return the experiment with distances of (5 ft, 10 ft, duck), (5 ft, 5 ft, car), (10 ft, 20 ft, duck), (20 ft, 20 ft, car). This experiment should give the opposite result, with a baby believing in extension becoming habituated but a baby believing in absolute distance being more interested. Simply compare the results between the experiments, and you should be able to tell if babies (or at least certain babies) hold to one coordinate system or the other.

Of course, chapters three and four dealth with more than the physical world. The discussion on on language on chapter four is quite good, though there is only want to focus on a few lines. On page 100, the authors write that by “the time they are in kindergarten, children have mastered almost all of the complexities of their particular language, with no conscious effort or instruction.” However, on the very next page they write that “the babies’ Language problem is not so much the scientist’s problem – find out what the world is really like – as it is a kind of sociological or even anthropological problem”: find out what the folks around here do and learn to do it yourself.” I am not sure how they make this distinction. In the previous reaction paper I noted that scientific-type thinking might be detected through brainscans. If this is true, the authors would here be suggested that learning language requires very little prefrontal cortex use. Actually I agree with this, though I find their switch their scientific-antrhopological division to be arbitrarily defined.

All in all though, these chapters were thought provoking and lead to testable hypotheses. Good show!

Gopnik, A., Meltzoff, A. N., & Kuhl, P. K. (1999). The scientist in the crib: What early learning tells us about the mind. New York: HarperCollins.

Reactions to The Scientist in the Crib, part of Biopsychological Development
1. A Young Science and Young Scientists
2. Learning About People and Things
3. Children’s Minds and Brains

A Young Science and Young Scientists

I was impressed by the opening section of Gopnik, Meltzoff, and Kuhl’s work The Scientist in the Crib: What Early learning Tells Us About the Mind. I enjoyed their discussion of the tools they use, though it is important to keep in mind that even newer tools allow us to test some hypotheses they could only dream about. The author’s emphasis on the unique nature, at birth, of all human beings is a welcome reprive from those who would believe we are born blank slates. Likewise, their focus on communication as opposed to speech opens the vista of possible science. I like this book.

When scientists speak of their discoveries, they are really speaking of how their tools let them see the world. Galileo’s description of the moons of Jupiter were heavily influenced by the use of a small optical telescope. He would have described those bodies differently had he had access to the Arecibo radio telescope. This does not make his findings wrong, but it emphasizes that they were incomplete.

Gopnik, Melzoff, & Kuhl’s work is similarly incomplete. Their tool is the videocassette camera All of their conjectures and statements seem to be based on this technology. Numerous videotaped experiments are described, and the authors sum of the method saying “With the help of videotape, scientists have developed ingenious experimental techniques to ask babies what they know.” However, it is incomplete. If it is true that the “job [of] developmental psychologists is to discover what programs babies run” (6) is an external monitoring device appropriate for such an internal reverse engineering?

For instance, consider their statement that “Babies and young children think, observe, and reason. They consider evidence, draw conclusions, do experiments, solve problems, and search for the truth” (13). Yet the trust tool of videotape does not let scientists see this. Videotape will show a child eye’s, or hands, or mouth. It will show all manners of expression and all expressions of mannerisms. But it will not let you know if a child is solving problems is the same mental way that we mean that phrase for adults and older children.

Fortunately, now some tools are available that would allow us to test this claim. FMRIs – Functional Magnemetic Resonance Images – give great temporal resolution for specific areas of the brain. To run an fMRI test of the hypothesis, determine which brain areas activate during problem solving, or experimental execution in adults and older children. Then run the same fFMRIs on infants as they perform behavior was identified through videotape. If the areas are the same, it would give support to the claim that babies are thinking as older humans do – that the same words we use to describe the exploration of more mature people apply to infants. If not, then such a conclusion should be discouraged.

More broadly, I enjoyed the authors’ emphasis on interpersonal differences. They acknowledge that behavioral differences between people exist from birth (for instance, talking about autistics on page 54) and that there are genetic components to these differences. As I wrote in a paper for another class, this tracks well with our increased scientific understanding of humanity. Conditions like suicide which were once blamed on the environment (Johnson, 1965 ; Pope 1975) now are also looked at with an eye on DNA (Kolata, 1986; 1987; Lubar, 1985).

Another area I liked was the authors’ de-emphasis on speech. Gopnik et al. Remind us that “before babies can talk, they can communicate” (35) and that “very young children are already beginning to go beyond an ego-centric understanding of other people” (41). While Vygotsky’s emphasis on mentoring was important, and he correctly taught that “to describe an isolated human mind is to miss the point. Human minds are never isolated” (Ridley, 2003, 208), his focuses on the verbal dialectic may mislead Babies as young as eighteen months will help complete strangers (Warneken & Tomasello, 2006), a behavior that is unusual among chimpanzees (Silk, 2006) but common among human beings (Alford & Hibbing, 2004, 2006; Smith 2006). Likewise, language never becomes the exclusive means of communication – it is not just that babies pre-linguistic behaviors are rough tools to be discarded once words are learned. As Gopnick, Meltzoff, & Kuhl write, “Like grown-up flirtation, baby flirtation bypasses languages and established a more direct link between people” (31). This implies that speech and cooperation are two species-typical traits, and not that cooperation is just an effect of the species-typical trait of language.

Alford, J. & Hibbing, J. (2004) .The Origin of Politics: An Evolutionary Theory of Political Behavior. Perspectives on Politics, 2(4), 707-723
Alford, J. R., & Hibbing, J.R. (2006). The Neural Basis of Representative Democracy. Paper presented at the Hendricks Conference on Biology, Evolution, and Political Behavior.
Johnson, B.D. (1965). Durkheim’s one cause of suicide. American Sociological Review 30(6): 875-886.
Gopnik, A., Meltzoff, A. N., & Kuhl, P. K. (1999). The scientist in the crib: What early learning tells us about the mind. New York: HarperCollins.
Kolata, G. (1986). Manic-depression: Is it inherited? Science 232(4750): 575-576.
Kolata, G. (1987). Manic-depression gene tied to chromosome 11. Science 235(4793): 1139-1140.
Lubar, J.F. (1985). EEG Biofeedback and Learning Disabilities. Theory into Practice 24(2): 106-111.
Pope, W. (1975). Concepts and explanatory structure in Durkheim’s theory of suicide. The British Journal of Sociology 26(4): 416-434.
Ridley, M. (2003). Nature via Nurture. Harper Collins: New York, NY.
Silk, J.B. (2006). Who are more helpful, humans or chimpanzees? Science 311(5765): 1248-1249.
Smith, K. (2006) Representational Altruism: The Wary Cooperator as Authoritative Decision Maker. American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 50 No. 4, pp 1013-1022.
Warneken, F., & Tomasello, M. (2006). Altruistic helping in human infants and young chimpanzees. Science 313(5765): 1301-1303.

Reactions to The Scientist in the Crib, part of Biopsychological Development
1. A Young Science and Young Scientists
2. Learning About People and Things
3. Children’s Minds and Brains

Biopsychological Development

Last semester, my favorite and most intense class was on genetic factors in human behavior. The class exposed me to ways biology effects behavior that I would not have guessed, or could have come up with no scientific reason for. That class ended with the opportunity for a final project, which a partner and myself fulfilled by writing The Wary Guerrilla, which was just featured by Mark of ZenPundit. Along the way, my new interest in ethology led me to write Growing Pack Behavior in Juvenile Homo Sapiens and Student Nature for child psychology, as well as Classroom Democracy and Learning Evolved for college teaching. (Happily, I received “A”s in all those classes.)

For next semester, I am learning more of how these ideas impact human development. In a class on biopsychological development, we will be discussing The Origins of Human Nature: Evolutionary Developmental Psychology (the heart of the class, and perhaps too profound for Christmas break readings) as well as The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells us About the Mind and The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium to bookend the semester. These are lighter fair, the former focusing on a very “West Pole” theory of cognitive development and the latter being a SSSM rear-guard maneuver. My reaction papers to these appear below:

Gopnik, Meltzoff, & Kuhl

1. A Young Science and Young Scientists
2. Learning About People and Things
3. Children’s Minds and Brains

Joseph L. Graves. Jr.

1. The Origin of the Race Concept
2. Darwin and the Survival of Scientific Racism
3. Applications and Misapplications of Darwinism
4. Biological Theories of Race At the Millennium