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Why childhood memories are dangerous

Childhood memory can be something of a treasure-trove for thinking about the mind. So much deep conceptual change happens in early childhood, and so little in adulthood, that childhood memories can be uniquely helpful in understanding what it is to have a truly different perspective, and so what is going on with the normal perspectives we carry around with us.

It’s also very easy to forget just how reasonable it is completely to “misunderstand” the way something works. We tend to think that everything is obvious. It isn’t. That should be obvious. Yet it isn’t.

So anyhow- here are three of my favourite early childhood memories.

“Difficult to tell when the water becomes hot””

Cause and effect

When running me a bath, my mother would every so often hold her hand beneath the tap, as one does, to check the temperature. Watching her, I must have misunderstood what was going on, for I came to think that she performed this hand-dipping not in order to test the heat of the water, but to actually make the water hot: that something happened with the impact of the water on her hand that magically heated it up.

When I took to running my own baths, I put my mother’s technique into practice. So I’d carefully hold my hand beneath the hot tap so as to ensure the water heated up. When the flow became so hot that I could no longer stand it, I’d hold a plastic soapdish beneath the torrent to get as much warmth into the water as possible.

Interestingly, I obviously thought my power to change the temperature of water worked in both directions: I also recall that when running water to drink, I would hold my hand underneath the cold tap to cool the liquid down before filling a glass.

“Xerxes: unfairly mocked for having his soldiers punish the sea with whips and chains”

I think it’s perhaps as a result of this childish superstition, that I have always been able to relate to the satisfaction that Xerxes experienced when whipping and burning the sea for what it had done to his bridges. I really remember what a wonderful sense of connection I used to have with water when I changed its temperature through my touch.

A vestige of this conception of physics lasted into my twenties, incidentally, when I finally discovered that hot water cleans plates more effectively than cold water not because the molecules have greater speed with which to knock dirt off, but instead because hot water melts the solid deposits of oil that cause food to stick to the surface of plates.

High and low

When my father first told me which were the high and the low notes on the piano, I was very confused. First of all (perhaps) I had no notion why sounds should be called high or low, what the connection was between height and pitch. I might be making that up- I can’t find the source-memory- but I very clearly recall that even after coming to terms with the idea of calling notes high or low, it took weeks before I could get my head round which was which: if it was going to be either, I felt that the “low” notes should be called ‘high’, and “high” notes called ‘low’.

“It could very easily be the other way round”

I can sadly no longer really recall what it was about high-pitched sounds that seemed so low, and vice versas. The opposiste connection now seems inevitable, self-evident. Very surprising to think that I had to learn that association.

I remain sympathetic to people who don’t know which end of the scale is which when asked “on a scale of one to ten how would you rate your holiday?”; equally, I know the pain of anyone who, on being told that the “meeting will be moved forward a week”, doesn’t understand whether the appointment has been repositioned sooner or later.

“Trees.”

Light and vision

One day, I was looking at some trees in the distance and for whatever reason my dad told me that light from the sun was bouncing off the moving leaves and travelling into my eye, and that was how I could see them shimmer. I remember being quite deeply shocked by that.

It seemed impossible. I had always intuitively thought that my eye somehow reached out to touch distant objects as I looked at them. It didn’t make any sense at all to think that light just passively fell on my eye- my experience clearly pointed in the other direction.

Curiously, after the shock had subsided, I recall comically compromising with him and adopting the belief that my eye met the light halfway between me and the trees, somewhere in mid-air. I don’t know how long I held to that compromise, but eventually of course I just knew that light goes from the world into the eye, and that vision is a passive process.

All of which is to say, in summary, that my childish imagination, on all of these counts, was at times hopelessly confused. My education in late childhood was naturally dedicated to ironing out all such absurdities in my childish guesses about the world, a trend which continued into university. For instance, over my undergrad degree in psychology I received a lengthy schooling in the mechanisms by which the human visual system passively receives and processes information.

Plot twist

“How the mind worked”

By chance my curiosity about all this was re-awakened when I discovered that Ptolemy believed that the eye emitted light in order to see- that sight reached out. This was the so-called extramission theory of perception, which, it turns out, was the dominant mode of understanding sight in the ancient world (amazing though it might seem).

By all accounts, it was only really after about the year 1000 that it became generally accepted that intromission (e.g.”photons stimulating the retina”) represented a better theory of how seeing works with  the work of the Iraqi philosopher and scientist Alhazen.

The first reason that this is interesting is that it hints that there’s something in the basic experience of human perception that makes sight feel active, like reaching out. It’s also cool to think that children might naturally have access to the Ancient Greek mode of world-perception.

But it actually gets much more interesting than that. For while most psychology and neuroscience largely stick to the idea of the brain as a passive receiver of information, some of the best recent theorists of perception have actually gone back, in some sense, to the view that sight is active..

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, JJ Gibson and Kevin O’Regan were some of the most subtle students of perception in the twentieth century, and all of them understand vision as an active process of “palpation” with the eye, in which movement and exploration are at the heart of seeing. Although the physics of light says it goes in, the experience and process goes just as much in the other direction.

All of which is to say a few small things:

  • Memory is fun.
  • Childhood memory especially.
  • We shouldn’t be surprised the Ancient Greeks were so good at philosophy.
  • We should think twice before teaching children what’s going on, truth isn’t always simple.

To finish, an amusing quote from JJ GIbson about the profession of psychology:

“I seem to be, to my surprise, a member of a large profession. There are some 20.000 psychologists in this country alone, nearly all of whom have become so in my adult lifetime. They are all prosperous. Most of them seem to be busily applying psychology to problems of life and personality. They seem to feel, many of them, that all we need to do is to consolidate our scientific gains. Their self-confidence astonishes me. For these gains seem to me puny, and scientific psychology seems to me ill-founded. At any time the whole psychological applecart might be upset. Let them beware!”

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