Friday, January 14, 2005

Train of thought

Way back when we were embarking a train journey, we bought a book for Helena, hoping to keep her fascinated and occupied. About a train! (It was actually J-F who picked it out, but he can't have read it or he would've mocked its strong environmental message.)

Oi! Get off our Train, by John Burningham.

Helena had no interest in this book until very recently. It's a mystery to me what draws her to any particular book and how her attachment to it then borders on obsessive to the exclusion of all else, at least temporarily.

We've only read the story in its entirety a couple of times. Helena gets stuck on page 5. The 2-page spread closes in on our hero's toy train as it churns to life. In the background, but taking up a lot of space, is the boy's bedside table, fronted with a cabinet door.

Helena needs to open that door.

She reaches into the page, grasping about for the knob. She knocks. She tries my keys, as if by this magic object she can shrink herself down to step through the looking glass, as it were, to unlock the mysteries that lie therein. Occasionally she looks around to the next page, but on her face is always disappointment, as if she's been cheated.

(I ended up housebound the other day, as I couldn't find my keys. They were last seen being used by Helena to unlock the door to her space capsule underneath the kitchen sink.)

I find this to be odd behaviour, but I can only assume it to be a common manifestation of a child's imagination in a particular phase of cognitive development, grappling with spatial perception, switching between 2 dimensions and 3, and the concept of representation.

Similarly, Helena shares her milk and cookies with the creatures of Jamberry, flicks bugs away from Kitten, and pets and kisses all her book friends.

It's as if she slips into another realm between the pages, literally being "lost in a good book."

That's a neat trick. Are we born with the ability to cross over, to give ourselves over, to suspend disbelief? Do we lose it (in varying degrees, from individual to individual) as we gain our footing in the material world?

I recently quoted psychologist Alison Gopnik as saying:
I believe, but cannot prove, that babies and young children are actually more conscious, more vividly aware of their external world and internal life, than adults are.

I also believe this, not as a psychologist, but as my child's observer. She is an empty and completely open vessel for whom time stretches in all directions, for whom space is an ongoing experiment. Too, she taps an emotional dimension, natural empath, pure of heart.

(See Gopnik's full answer to the question "What Do You Believe Is True Even Though You Cannot Prove It?")

I think that, for babies, every day is first love in Paris. Every wobbly step is skydiving, every game of hide and seek is Einstein in 1905.

(Believe it or not, what follows is connected.)

Salon discusses Martin Gladewell's book Blink:

At the heart of the book is a feature of human psychology that Gladwell calls "rapid cognition" — the ability of our brains to make snap decisions in the background, without our ever really consciously knowing about them.

This itself is a surprising idea; we're not aware, Gladwell says, how much work our brains do for us in secret — how they're always sizing things up, extracting meaning out of the tiniest details, constantly making sense of the world, even when we think we're not paying attention. What's more, as a culture we're trained to discount such rapid cognition in favor of deeper thinking and greater analysis. First impressions are never thought to be as reliable as lifelong studies.

Gladwell wants us to revisit the first impression. "The first task of 'Blink,'" he writes, "is to convince you of a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately." Listening to our snap judgments can be tricky business, however, and Gladwell documents the many ways in which our "internal computers" can be "thrown off, distracted, and disabled."

An exchange with the author.

The Implicit Association Test.
It is well known that people don't always 'speak their minds', and it is suspected that people don't always 'know their minds'. Understanding such divergences is important to scientific psychology.

I took a few of the tests. Although some of the results sit a little uncomfortably, they're not terribly surprising.

I believe children know more and are far wiser than we will ever give them credit. Though they may have less information, their's is a clean, unfettered path to knowing their minds and tapping the essential.


Müzikdüde said...

Picking up endangered animals? Is this an advisable practice to be teaching children? I have to wonder what they plan to do with these animals. Did you you check the back of the book for recipes?

I'm highly skeptical of this "environmental message".

Suzanne said...

I am very interested in reading Gladwell's book (I loved The Tipping Point). The whole concept of trusting one's initial instincts when it comes to making decisions is a little foreign to me---I obsess, wrangle, debate over so many decisions in my life. I wish my thinking could be a bit more nimble.

Anonymous said...

I'm never quite sure whether B's very empathic or not. On the one hand, he will kiss a sad-looking puppy in one of his books. On the other hand, the other night when I felt horrible and was falling to pieces he didn't seem to notice at all.

I do have to give him credit for the last two days, though -- stuck with a mother who just wants to lie on the couch, he's been very contented with quiet, small-scale games. And he'll periodically point at me, prostrate on the furniture, and say "Tired? Sleepy?" and then make his fake snoring sound.

Anonymous said...


Please consider the target age group for the book. How many toddlers really know what endangered means?