cognitive awareness

November 10, 2010

Early Baby Thinking

Baby thinking or ideas don’t start as full blown adult thinking with sophisticated models of some concept that has an integrated past, present and future. Instead our babies start with simple isolated schemas for actions they see happening in the world. Our babies can see patterns in their own and other’s behavior. They see which actions garner affection and approval; which, disapproval and anger. They see how the physical world works- hitting this button causes this thing to pop out. They picture relationships and possibilities with these images creating an inner world of thought. It is this ability to understand and keep in memory “patterns” that lets a toddler meaningfully explore and categorize the world and begin to solve problems long before they speak words. She is beginning to construct these series of images in mind. These models are the most deliberate and conscious productions of the baby mind.

While learning to use objects, our babies imitate how adults interact with them. This imitation becomes internalized and our baby begins to develop a specific schema for interacting with a specific object. Researchers call this mental schema a “sensorimotor concept”. For example, Whitney observed us adults using a brush numerous times and at 10 or so months could imitate that “brushing” schema:

Even though whitney would use the back side of the brush and almost never actually have an actual effect of combing her hair, She enjoyed repeating the concept of brushing. As whitney bangs the brush against her head and attempts stroking it, she develops a sensorimotor schema or concept for the brush that combines visual, tactile, and kinesthetic representations of brushing. These non verbal ideas are the foundations for thought and reason!

September 28, 2010

Early Logic Adventures- Figuring things out

Once our babies start to sit up, this milestone opens a whole new range of exploration. Their hands free up and whatever they can get them on, they want to explore and manipulate. Here Whitney, gets her hands on one of Dad’s shoes — grabbing the shoelace, bringing it to her mouth, flapping it around, tugging on it til the shoe moves. These explorations help her “figure out” the shoe or any object for that matter:

As mentioned last post, one of the first steps in the development in logic is a baby’s realization that he or she can make something happen. As our babies’ day-to-day experiences accumulate, they begin to notice patterns in their world. They begin to organize and integrate the world into spatial and sequential categories. They explore the features of different objects and learn to “figure things out” — what makes a shoe a shoe, a ball a ball, etc. Bring a bunch of varied objects into their reach and enjoy the show.

September 8, 2010

Early Logic Adventures- Making things happen

Our little ones don’t start their logic careers with the 123s, shapes, and colors: instead, they figure out that when they do something, it can make something else happen in the world. So if they give you a big smile, you will give them a big smile back. This is early cause and effect and babies are discovering this by 3 months of age. They are learning this across all aspects of their life. When in a crib or on a playmat, if they kick the bell it will make a sound. In the video below, my daughter Whitney, discovers that when she makes her legs hit the ball it moves and makes a sound:

By three months, our babies demonstrate that they can remember that they know that doing one thing makes another thing happen and show that they can make it happen–again and again. With Whitney’s ability to coordinate vision, reaching and kicking, something even more dramatic is happening to her mind. She is learning that she can make interesting things happen AND can remember them for short periods of time! Coordinating eye, hand and foot movement is a remarkable achievement but it is the feeling of mastery at making things work that truly promotes our babies’ conceptual and logical development. The more opportunities we offer that enable them to “make things happen”, the stronger this critical foundation for logic and learning.

April 19, 2010

Thinking- Ages & Stages

We have all wondered from time to time– what is going on inside that little head of my baby. Well, that rapidly changes from stage to stage. The foundations for thinking skills start very early. Even though for the first three months babies sleep most of the time and periods of alertness are brief, babies can attend to the world in an organized way. They demonstrate selective focusing of their attention and preferences for certain stimuli like faces and mother’s voice but have no clue that the hand that just passed their eyes belongs to them. Their mind is a world of feelings and a unified state of being either comfortable or upset. When comfortable they will attend to and learn about the world through their five senses.  Whitney used to love her bouncy seat with things hanging in front of her; We would try to vary the items on her bar so she could notice differences in what was displayed.

Calm Alert State

We adults want to help them obtain the calm alert state by meeting their basic needs and making sure they are not over stimulated. Learning to read our babies for cues to over stimulation is key during this period. As our babies’ day-to-day experiences accumulate, they begin to notice patterns in their world. They learn that if they cry, someone will respond. They learn that kicking your feet can make a sound from a certain dangling toy on their bouncy seat. From there, they begin to organize and integrate the world into spatial and sequential categories. By twelve months old, infants are even learning to string together two to three steps to solve a problem, such as retrieving a toy that’s out of reach and hidden under another object. This reveals important learning. They can hold a mental image of the toy that is out of sight; realize that the toy exists even though it cannot be seen; figure out a way or ways to retrieve the toy; and perhaps to recall ways that s/he found a hidden object in the past and to repeat that strategy now.

Toddlers experience a dramatic change in mobility—combined with viewing things from new vantage points – offering new perspectives, challenges and frustrations.  children begin to make comparisons between groups of things, able to make comparisons between the qualities of objects, such as size, shape, color and function, putting things together in like groups. For instance, when putting toys away, your child may create a collection of balls and another collection of blocks. We want to expose our toddlers to the full range of things, animals and people in their world. The more hands on exploration of the world they can get the better their foundation of experiences with and understanding of the vast diversity of objects and life.

By 2 years old, our babies demonstrate an expanded memory for the scripts of daily life, have spatial maps of their world and reason through situations and problems. Their increasing ability to form mental representations supports language development as well as pretend play.  Your young toddler can be exhilarated by his many discoveries. And by three, they demonstrate a vastly increased repertoire of symbols to represent ideas and images as they enter the world of imagination and can manipulate and transform these images in their minds. We want to support their budding narratives by encouraging them to tell their stories and to recount as many adventures as they are willing. These representations and mental exercise is the foundation for their future logic and reason.

February 18, 2010

Awareness- Part 3

Twos take another leap in their ability to gain awareness of their world and use mental models to reflect upon it. First is that our Twos are not only able to create a mental picture of the world but are also able to hold that representation of the external world in mind for longer than just the immediate moment and can use it to complete tasks and meet goals. Whitney revealed a strong ability to keep a visual map of where she was and where she needed to go. For example, when asked to go get a ball out in the yard while viewing it from the second floor of our house, she could hold her representation of the house, the front yard and where the ball is in that yard as she navigated downstairs, outside and through the yard to retrieve it. (see “Get Ball” video clips at: www.RaisingWhit.com, 24mths).

Mental Maps used to find something

Mental Maps used to find the ball

The second important milestone is the capacity to rehearse and review one’s own actions– to picture “me” doing things in that external world. Here to is an extended ability to hold that representation in mind longer bringing new levels of awareness and reflection. As mentioned in the previous post, humans unlike any other species have a robust self recognition and ability to picture and supervise themselves performing complex tasks. This type of conscious awareness is unique to humans. Although some primates like apes have a limited form of imitation, none can match our toddlers budding skills at mental rehearsal and accurate reproduction of actions. (see “Imitating Stretching” video from last post)

These two milestones come together to create a powerful new ability to understand and keep in memory “mental models” or scripts that lets a toddler meaningfully explore and categorize the world. They are beginning to master the everyday routines and scripts that compose life from wakeup time and mealtime to bathtime and bedtime. They have a growing understanding of their world, their life and an ability to hold these images and understandings in mind. These multisensory pictures or ideas are the most deliberate and conscious productions of the mind. The ultimate model of models is “me-in-my-enviroment” and our toddlers are starting to perform the mental rehearsal of placing themselves in all these different roles and routines. Now our toddlers can form a mental image of his wants and desires, label it with specific spoken words, communicate or act on it.

The difference from a year ago is that these are now more complex models with beginnings, middles and ends; and she can now move away from having to rely on the primarily behavior based interactions. She can use verbal shortcuts to get she needs met as more words become associated with these mental pictures. The life of action is transitioning to a life of mind. Albeit still isolated islands of ideas without the more coherent worldview an adult carries around that integrates ideas into unified narratives. This is an early phase in the life of mind.

In the second half of the year, our children do begin to build bridges between ideas and construct more coherent narratives and reason logically. Before 3 years, toddlers will start to weave together autobiographical narratives. Narratives go further than just words to describe things. Narratives have a dramatic through line with actors who have desires directed toward goals which take place in a context with a beginning, middle and end. Whitney could now comprehend and make up narratives about her own life. Another aspect is the ability to create larger stories across a broader range of experience. Whitney was now beginning to understand how one event leads to another (if I fall down, I get a booboo on my knee and have to get a bandaide); how ideas operate across time (If I eat my dinner now, I will get dessert later); and how ideas operate across space (Mom is here and dropping me off now and will go away and come back later to pick me up). Ideas can now be used to explain emotions (I feel mad because mom won’t let me do that) and for logical thinking (that is fantasy instead of reality).

From infancy to three, our babies are mastering this critical capacity for broad human awareness and reflective thought. Again, it does not happen automatically and rich experiences in the baby’s real world set a more robust and solid foundation. From birth we can help our babies remain in a calm alert state for full employment of their five senses and the optimal engagement with their surroundings. We can develop a close intimate bond with our baby by interacting with our baby at a slow pace following their lead. We can explore the world with our baby noticing their emotional reactions to things and encouraging back and forth facial expressions and gestures, expressing a broader range of emotions with appropriate natural timing. We can help them exercise their budding mental representations and memories by recounting events and the day before bed and anticipating what is about to happen prior to the day and the events. We can help them construct narratives from their lives by starting a story about your trip to the zoo and letting them fill in and co- construct the story as you both recount it to a sibling or spouse. There is much to do in our role as parent. Two amazing books for much more detail are: Daniel Stern’s Diary of a Baby for a eye opening perspective on how your baby sees the world and Stanley Greenspan’s Building Healthy Minds on what you can do at each age & stage of this development.

February 10, 2010

Awareness- Part 2

The development of a versatile self awareness propels many new cognitive feats. Not only can they recognize themselves in the mirror, but they can decipher the rotations and transformations of their images in the mirror based on the actions they initiate. This is the beginning of the capability of manipulating their own self-image in their mind and the capacity to rehearse and review one’s own actions. This ability to bring our own body into full view enables powerful learning through social imitation and the detailed reproduction of actions.

Imitating Stretching

Imitating Stretching

It is hard to appreciate just how important this unique kind of self-awareness is. It is what allows us to self-assemble complex skills from a one year old learning to walk to the most advanced feats we adults can perform. Just consider the simple task of driving a car where a person must learn a whole range of relatively independent actions– starting, turning, backing up, steering, accelerating, braking, shifting gears, monitoring traffic, reading road signs, keeping track of directions and street names, etc. These sub skills are usually self taught, self rehearsed, and self evaluated. Each sub skill must be integrated into a complex hierarchy or metasystem that coordinates all of the sub components into a fluid whole. What early on takes conscious deliberation eventually becomes automatic and intuitive. One year olds are already building skill upon skill. Sub skills are embedded into more complex skill hierarchies such as walking. Toddlers must be able to stand up, balance themselves, take the first step and swing their leg for the next step and eventually stop.

Mental skills are being built upon existing skills. With the rise of multisensory images now being represented and remembered in mind, a remarkable spurt of problem solving occurs as these new skills are put to use.  Although still tied to concrete actions, our babies can establish intent , set & realize goals and perform all the associated problem solving to achieve it. During early ones, all this happens non-verbally, done with images translated to actions. For example, Whitney would spy a favorite toy, recognize her desire to have it, and exchange a whole range of gestures with me that logically followed each other. She would toddle over to the shelf the toy was on and then look over her shoulder at me to enlist my attention. Once she recognized she had my attention by my nob and look, she might wield her finger toward the toy and squeal with a “demand cry” (see video). Whitney was rewarded in her problem solving steps by me giving her the toy and she gave me the reward of a big smile. No words involved but lots of cognitive thought and mental problem solving. Theses processes are the  foundations for their very consciousness and thought that are being put in place.

Around half way through the second year, toddlers make another giant leap into the more mental world of words. Instead of pointing, grabbing your shirt and pulling you over to the doorway, they become able to look us in the eye and say “Go“. This transition does not happen overnight but is a gradual process beginning as early as 16 months and continuing up to their third year. Whitney’s “Non-verbal world” of the here & now is more fully joined by a symbolic “Verbal world” of the past and future, of naming and categorizing. These two separate worlds can be exhilarating and confusing. Her familiar nonverbal world of experience lives with a completely separate version of the same event, a new world of words. Life now and forever will be lived in parallel as the verbal and nonverbal constructions of experience live together.

February 4, 2010

Awareness & Reflective Thought- Part 1

Even more fundamental then language is the development of our unique human awareness and reflective thought. Believe it or not, when a young baby’s hand goes whizzing by her face, she actually has no idea that it is her own hand. A baby’s consciousness and awareness is nothing like an adult humans. They are trapped in the here and now and cannot yet even separate a perception from an action. When my daughter Whitney was hungry, she cried for food. When she was uncomfortable she let out a distress cry. Initially most emotions are “catastrophic” where the  immediate environment or situation overwhelms them. So how do newborns become aware of and regulate their emotions. How do they become aware of a past, present and future with all the requisite images and symbols to represent each. How does the “me in my world” mental models develop where we form intentions, create images and scenarios in mind to act upon those intentions. By the time they are three most of these important aspects of awareness and thought are in place. How does a baby master this amazing transformation?

PlainMirror

An important first task is perceptual categorization and awareness. When comfortable and calm babies can attend to the external world of sights, sounds and other senses. Infants not only attend to stimuli; but also learn to attend selectively to slight differences.  For example, if the child hears the same tone three or four times, its power to orient the child diminishes. But change the tone just one note higher or lower and the infant becomes interested again, indicating that he has noticed the difference.

Initially babies experience a limited number of global states such as calmness, excitement, and distress. As they experience a range of sensations, they begin to develop more nuanced emotions and responses. Each sensation of sight or sound, taste or smell as registered by the baby gives rise to an affect or emotion. A blanket can be smooth and pleasant or scratchy and irritating; a loud voice can be inviting or jarring.  The sensation gets coded with both its physical features and its emotional effect. Sensory impressions are increasingly tied to feelings in this “duel code”.  Emotions help organize the world for the baby. Inner emotional tones are used to make sense of experience to eventually label and organize, store and retrieve emerging images and memories. Babies have a base level awareness of being alive and discriminating the effects of different sensations—called primary consciousness.

Another critical early step is translating this emotional interest in sensations to form a relationship and become engaged in the world. Babies will become progressively more interested in certain people like mom & dad. In the second quarter of life, babies begin to engage with joyful smiles and coos developing a deep sense of pleasurable intimacy.  A key to deepening this intimacy is the rhythm and timing of parent and baby interactions – such as the back and forth coos and smiles exchanged in face to face play. Our babies begin to distinguish the joys and pleasures of the human world from the joys and pleasures of the inanimate world of objects, They are beginning on the long journey of recognizing patterns and organizing perceptions into meaningful categories.

A third step to broadening awareness and thought is transforming these pleasurable emotions with parent interactions into signals of communication and intentionality. Our babies begin to smile in order to get a smile back; reaches for grandpas nose to get a “honk-honk” sound. Our babies begin to engage in back and forth emotional signaling. Instead of an immediate narrow action, babies begin to transform emotions into interactive signals that express that emotion. Different physical gestures such as vocalizations and facial expressions are the means of this signaling. These interactions help an infant separate perceptions from fixed actions. Unlike most of the animal kingdom, humans can form an image, or mental representation, that is less tied to action. Once food exists as an image separated from crying that image can be used for new purposes such as signaling intent or eventually planning and problem solving.

This early awareness or consciousness leads to a more articulate self-awareness. When do babies actually come to realize that the hand moving in front of their face is theirs– that “I am me”– this ability to form an image or mental representation of themselves in their mind. Consider an infant looking into a mirror.  Does the infant think, “That’s me” or “That’s a baby?”  It is not until around their first birthday that they begin to know the image is themselves in the mirror. Self-awareness begins slowly with the recognition that one’s own body moves in expected ways. A child knows that kicking “my feet” can happen at times that are useful (getting a blanket off my legs).  This does not mean that the infant has words or even mental images of “baby Whitney;” But this sense of agency, that effects can happen when useful, creates the ground from which self-awareness grows.

About the end of the first year babies begin to understand that the image in the mirror “belongs” to them.  For example, if the child is wearing a lightweight cap to which he has habituated (no longer remembers it is there), upon seeing himself in the mirror he may reach up to touch or remove the hat.  His behavior suggests that he knows the image belongs to him and not some generic baby.