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The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love and the Meaning of Life

In the days when Jean Piaget and Sigmund Freud dominated thinking about child development, small children were thought to be irrational, incoherent, and solipsistic in their thinking and both easily distractible and unfocused in their awareness of the world. Recent work in developmental psychology offers a sharply contrasted picture. “Children are unconsciously the most rational beings on earth,” says Alison Gopnik, “brilliantly drawing accurate conclusions from data, performing complex statistical analyses, and doing clever experiments.” And not only does empirical work reveal this about babies and small children, but what is thus revealed throws light on some of philosophy’s more intriguing questions about knowledge, the self, other minds, and the basis of morality.

Such are the claims made by philosopher and developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik in this fascinating account of the growth of child minds. Gopnik’s affectionate and sympathetic enjoyment of the way children think in their first five years is manifest throughout her book, but so too is her sensitivity to the deeper philosophical implications of what their way of thinking can teach us. The result is absorbing and educative. This is despite the fact that, at times, it seems as if developmental psychology provides arduous scientific confirmation for what parents and preschool teachers have always long known; but Gopnik is skilled at producing the rabbit of insight from an apparently old hat. And there is also much that is new and surprising in the field, all of it promising to change our understanding of mind in general.

Gopnik describes how imagination contributes to the vast amount of knowledge that children acquire in their first few years. Accumulated knowledge allows children to think of alternative ways that the world could be, which in turn helps them to construct mental maps of the causal relationships that govern and explain how things work. Ihttps://fireexit.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?action=edit&post=4587&message=1magination also aids them in forming ideas about how other people think and why they act as they do. Many children have “imaginary friends”; their ability to understand others and to change themselves is aided by the possibilities for exploring alternatives that such play affords.

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Boys on a Lorry, Cowcaddens, Glasgow 1958 by Roger Mayne
Photo source: Persiflage.org.uk

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Can a machine change your mind?

Jane O’Grady on eliminative materialism:

Really? So we were wrong all the time about our memories and our passions? What sort of a world, I wonder, do these eliminative materialists envisage with their revised vocabulary about mental (or rather neural states). What exactly would be doing? What would be the point of training ourselves, or being trained, to report on our brain states?

The eliminative materialists may base their argument on the perspicuous fact that some mental terms do trail theories behind them, and can therefore be replaced, extrapolating from this the notion that such terms can be wholesale eliminated. ‘Depression’, ‘grief’, ‘melancholia’, ‘black bile’, ‘accidie’ are, it is true, not synonymous, nor do they, probably, refer to precisely the same phenomena; but does that mean that there are no such dark phenomena? ‘Dark’ is not just purple passagey – these, like many mental states, arent exactly describable except by pictorial and other metaphors. But I wonder how eliminative materialists would replace Macbeth’s description, or expression, of depression, melancholy, black bile or whatever in the ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’ speech, or George Eliot’s apercu on the insincerity of spontaneous feeling.

Metaphor bridges the gap between secluded mental states by invoking physical things that are open to all (whatever the likelihood of their being differently experienced). If indeed ‘folk psychology’ could be eradicated, along with all the metaphor and poetry that has grown up around it, then surely, with the irrepressibility of weeds, metaphor and poetry would spring up again around brain state terminology. But how would we be induced to abandon ‘folk psychology’ in the first place. Eliminativism seems to share the worst aspect of Cartesian dualism – its hopeless seclusion. Our brain states, although in principle open to anyone’s inspection, are in practice hidden. Why would we go the trouble of talking about our inner states, sensibly say objectors to dualism, unless in the context of sharable, palpable experiences? Even more ridiculous, by the same token, is the idea that we could be taught about, and discuss, brain states. Why would we ever dream of doing so?

Worse than this, would be the loss to morality and self-creation. Suppose, in a juxtaposition of eliminativism and Freudianism, a woman’s amygdala lighted up in the anger zone even as she was professing not to be angry. She is duly given the expert’s better-informed diagnosis of her state of mind. But is that an advantage, particularly if she accepts the diagnosis and acts on it. Denial of anger may sometimes be dishonesty or self-deception, but may also, even while being both, be part of the suppression of anger that is so imperative in civilised life. What about if a man objecting to a situation of social injustice were subjected to Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation to obliterate his present feeling of dissatisfaction and induce a feeling of pleasure? Surely what actually matters to him is the cognitive aspect of the dissatisfaction – the reason he was feeling it.

In Defense of Distraction

The prophets of total attentional meltdown sometimes invoke, as an example of the great culture we’re going to lose as we succumb to e-thinking, the canonical French juggernaut Marcel Proust. And indeed, at seven volumes, several thousand pages, and 1.5 million words, À la Recherche du Temps Perdu is in many ways the anti-Twitter. (It would take, by the way, exactly 68,636 tweets to reproduce.) It’s important to remember, however, that the most famous moment in all of Proust, the moment that launches the entire monumental project, is a moment of pure distraction: when the narrator, Marcel, eats a spoonful of tea-soaked madeleine and finds himself instantly transported back to the world of his childhood. Proust makes it clear that conscious focus could never have yielded such profound magic: Marcel has to abandon the constraints of what he calls “voluntary memory”—the kind of narrow, purpose-driven attention that Adderall, say, might have allowed him to harness—in order to get to the deeper truths available only by distraction. That famous cookie is a kind of hyperlink: a little blip that launches an associative cascade of a million other subjects. This sort of free-associative wandering is essential to the creative process; one moment of judicious unmindfulness can inspire thousands of hours of mindfulness.

(via @mgpolitis)

How storytelling shaped humanity

Kate Douglas reviews On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, cognition and fiction by Brian Boyd:

Boyd argues that art, including fiction, is a unique human adaptation whose chief function is “for improving human cognition, cooperation and creativity”. His excellent accounts of these three areas of human activity show both an impressive mastery of the science and an admirable inclination to question orthodoxy. The “mating mind theory” – art as a product of sexual selection – is subjected to forensic analysis, the notion of “personal narrative” is pooh-poohed, and even Aristotle is not beyond cross-examination.

Art, Boyd says, is a form of play. It is an interesting idea. In recent years, biologists who study play have come to see it as an adaptation allowing intelligent animals to hone mental and physical skills in non-threatening environments. This fits perfectly with Boyd’s assertion that fiction fosters cognition, cooperation and creativity. Where the idea falls short is in its failure to recognise that play is primarily interactive, whereas storytelling is more of a spectator sport.

Learn to Think Better: Tips from a Savant

*Daniel Tammet is author of two books, Born on a Blue Day and Embracing the Wide Sky.

One of the most interesting scientific discoveries about how language works (and how it could be taught) is “phonaesthesia”—that certain sounds have a meaningful relation to the things they describe. For example, in many languages the vowel sound “i” is associated with smallness—little, tiny, petite, niño, and so on—whereas the sound “a” or “o” is associated with largeness—grand, gross, gordo, etcetera. Such links have been found in many of the world’s languages. These findings strongly imply that learners would benefit from learning to draw on their own natural intuitions to help them understand and remember many of the foreign words that they come across.

Another finding, by cognitive psychologists Lera Boroditsky, Lauren A. Schmidt and Webb Phillips, might also offer a useful insight into an important part of learning a second language. The researchers asked German and Spanish native speakers to think of adjectives to describe a range of objects, such as a key. The German speakers, for whom the word “key” is masculine, gave adjectives such as “hard,” “heavy,” “jagged” and “metal,” whereas the Spanish speakers, for whom “key” is feminine, gave responses such as “golden,” “little,” “lovely” and “shiny.” This result suggests that native speakers of languages that have gendered nouns remember the different categorization for each by attending to differing characteristics, depending on whether the noun is “male” or “female.” It is plausible that second-language learners could learn to perceive various nouns in a similar way to help them remember the correct gender.

Regardless of how exactly a person learns a second language, we do know for sure that it is very good for your brain. There is good evidence that language learning helps individuals to abstract information, focus attention, and may even help ward off age-related declines in mental performance.

Researchers have found that you are more likely to remember something if the place or situation in which you are trying to recall the information bears some resemblance—color or smell, for example—to where you originally learned it. A greater awareness therefore of the context in which we acquire a particular piece of information can help improve our ability to remember it later on.

(via Sullivan)

Worth watching…