Who looks inside, awakens

The other day I watched a 4-D ultrasound of our soon-to-be born baby girl. If you’ve never seen one of these video scans, they are way beyond the grainy black & white images of last decade’s techology. During the exam, I could see her yawn, smile and suck her thumb in blocky, slow-mo, baby claymation. This confining bubble is her whole universe, and I watched her silently dance, unaware of any limitations within this crowded space.

Wait - don't tell me...was it Barbara Streisand in Funny Girl?
Wait - don't tell me...was it Barbara Streisand in Funny Girl?

I’ve been learning as much as I can about babies lately, ever since my wife scolded me for assuming out loud that they don’t open their eyes for a week after they’re born. “They’re not puppies, Chris” she sighed.

While trying to educate myself and avoid further chastising, I came across a 2002 scientific model of infant cognitive development from researchers at the University of Texas at Austin called, a constructivist learning architecture that really helped me understand how human minds develop. The researchers conclude that babies are neither a blank slate nor born with any innate knowledge, but rather are pre-programmed with an information processing system that helps them make sense of their physical and social world.

The model is hierarchical, built on basic information about shapes, sounds, orientation and movements. As babies learn, they integrate this information with higher, more complex information, assembling them in a hierarchical progression as they go. As adults, we employ the same adaptive method, accessing the higher and most recent orders of the same domains of perception in terms of spatial and temporal qualities of objects, patterns, and causal events.

As I understand it, the operating system we’re born with comes with one basic program installed and that is instinct; to suckle, to be drawn to human faces, to cry when uncomfortable. These inborn reflexes allow babies to relate to their environment and build up a repetoire of knowledge. But what interested me most was the mechanism of learning itself, because it explains why we can only see a construct of our world, rather than how the world actually is.

Sylvain Sirois, Babylab director at the University of Manchester, elegantly summarized this mechanism in a 2007 Time Magazine article entitled, What Do Babies Know?

From brain-imaging studies we also know that the brain has some sort of visual buffer that continues to represent objects after they have been removed–a lingering perception rather than conceptual understanding. So when babies encounter novel or unexpected events, Sirois explains, “there’s a mismatch between the buffer and the information they’re getting at that moment. And what you do when you’ve got a mismatch is you try to clear the buffer. And that takes attention.” So learning, says Sirois, is essentially the laborious business of resolving mismatches.

The laborious business of resolving mismatches. What a great way of explaining learning. It fits perfectly with our whole system of education and measuring intelligence, which is nothing more than the art of guessing correctly. By the time we reach adulthood, we have a huge visual buffer that is harder and harder to clear because of its volume. So learning slows down and we don’t believe what we see anymore, we see what we believe.

During this recent self-directed education, my old friend, the Right Honorable Tony Lloyd (I call him this not because he is a British MP, though he is British, an honorable fellow and usually right), pointed out how a lot of my writing reminded him of George Berkeley (yes, the Bishop of Cloyne, that one) in his philosophical critique of materialism. I agree with a lot of what Berkeley wrote, especially his presupposition that all anyone ever directly or immediately perceives are ideas. This fits well with the constructivist learning architecture outlined above, which essentially says that we learn to make inferences and representations of what we are seeing, then base our perception on these inferences. When someone looks at the moon and perceives it to be about the size of a quarter and only a few miles away, as Berkeley says, “he’s not mistaken with regard to the ideas he actually perceives; but in the inferences he makes from his present perceptions.”

Understanding the architectural constraints of my baby’s learning system has helped me to re-examine my own. The fact that her ultrasound makes her look like one of the pod babies in The Matrix may be more than coincidence. We’re all in that same confined space and only once we become conscious of that, can we truly awaken to the possibilities before us.

“I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space…” – Hamlet, scene ii.Act II