Friday, July 25, 2008

Hiatus (+A Short Note on Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development)

It will be a while until I’ll be able to post again, because I’m at my fiancée’s parents’ home over the semester holidays and won’t have access to the internet. After that I’ll have to prepare for my year abroad in Nottingham, which starts mid-September, but I’ll try to post a bit more regularly starting late August.
Right now I’m busy writing a term paper on Nietzsche’s view on the evolution of language, but I also try to occasionally have a look at other texts that interest me. So here’s one interesting (well, at least I think it’s interesting…) thing:

Yesterday I’ve read the first chapter of “The Development of Children” by Michael Cole, Sheila Cole, and Cynthia Lightfoot.
There, they give a short overview over influential theories of human development. As already discussed on this blog, Jean Piaget is a very influential thinker on the topic of children’s conceptualizations of mental states and differing perspectives on the same event.
Piaget thinks that young children are self-centered and only see things from an egocentric perspective that they are unable to transcend. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, there is a lot of evidence that this generalization is exaggerated, and that the ability to take other cognitive perspectives arises between the ages 4-5, an age much younger than Piaget hypothesised.
Another crucial assumption in Piaget’s theory is that there is a stage at which children’s understanding and experiencing the world fundamentally changes. Before this change, they conceive of thinking as a bodily process, for example, the act of speaking. Only older children conceive of thinking as something invisible and unobservable. According to Piaget, children’s conceptualization of thinking fundamentally changes about the age of 10 to 11. This is when children first become able to think about thinking as a mental process which cannot be seen. Piaget used clinical interviews as evidence for his theory. Here are two interviews he did with younger children (taken from Cole at al. 2005: 21f.):

Piaget:… You know what it means to think?
Child: Yes.
Piaget: Then think of your house. What do you think with?
Child: With the mouth”

Even when children get explicit hints, they aren’t able to think of mental states as internal processes:
Piaget: When you are in bed and you dream, where is the dream?
Child: In my bed, under the blanket.
Piaget: Is the dream there when you sleep?
Child: Yes, it is in my bed beside me.
[Piaget writes: “We tried suggestion:”]: Is the dream in you head?
[The child explicitly rejects the possibility]: It is I that am in the dream: it isn’t in my head.”

With older children that have reached the next developmental stage, however, the picture is quite different:
Piaget: Where is thought?
Child: In the head.
Piaget: If someone opened your head would he see your thought?
Child: No.
Piaget: What is a dream?
Child: It’s a thought
Piaget: Are the eyes open or shut?
Child: Shut.
Piaget: Where is the dream whilst you are dreaming?
Child: In the head
Piaget: Not in front of you?
Child: It’s as if (!) you could see it”

The evidence seems pretty straightforward.
However, often children are not fully able to express their thoughts and conceptualizations verbally, so a child’s practical understanding of mental processes might be different from what it says about them.
There is, for example, massive evidence that 4-5 year-old children are able to realize that other people have wrong representations of the world (i.e. that they have false beliefs). They are also able to attribute unobservable mental states like knowledge to others, that is, they have a Theory of Mind. At age 3, children are already able to grasp the fact that people have other desires and tastes as they have, for example, that someone else likes broccoli although they themselves don’t.
These facts made me a bit suspicious of the interviews Piaget reported, especially as I do not know how many children he actually asked. So I asked my fiancée’s little brother, who is much much younger than her: 4. (4,11 to be precise)
So here is my first informal interview (translated from German):

Me: Can you actually think?
Child: Well um yes
Me: Then think of a house. What do you think with?
Child (points at his forehead): Umm… With the brain!”

So what’s the explanation? Even though my fiancée’s brother is a bright kid, it’s improbable that he bridged a developmental gap of 6 years. And I have a hunch that although not as many kids at his age would have answered with “the brain”, still a lot would have said that thoughts are in the head.

To see how sophisticated his conceptualization really was, I tried to replicate Piaget’s Interview with the 11-year-old kid:

Me: Do you know what a thought is?
Child: Yes.
Me: Where is thought?
Child: In the brain.
Me: If someone opened your head would he see your thought?
Child: No.
Me: Do you know what a dream is?
Child: Yes.
Me: Are the eyes open or shut?
Child: Shut.
Me: Where is the dream whilst you are dreaming?
Child: In the brain.
Me: Not in front of you?
Child: No.

One possible explanation is a cultural-historical one. Piaget’s interviews are more than 80 years old and the culture and developmental environment of Germany in the year 2008 is certainly different from that of France in the 1920ies. There are of course social factors involved and it would be interesting to check for variation if more kids were interviewed.
One could also argue that my fiancée’s brother’s comprehension of mental states is still a mechanistic, bodily one. Instead of the physical organ of the mouth, the thinking is done with another physical organ: the brain. But then this would surely also be the answer of many adults. Furthermore, in his conceptualization a thought isn’t located in the brain in a trivial way: even if you opened his head, you couldn’t see it. Interestingly, as I remarked that it was pretty cool that he thought that thoughts are being produced by the brain, he said: “What else should I think with…? …the head?!”, something which indicates that he didn’t get behind the metaphorical link between the head and a mental states, and thus maybe didn’t see my questions as aiming at invisible processes of the mental world, but being directed at the factual/physical domain, but I’m not so sure about that.

To end this post with a provocative question: could his answer imply the death of folk dualism? With increasing education and the all-pervasiveness of biological talk in the media (Think of the press coverage fMRI studies receive) and in everyday speech, the view that the mind is what the brain does might become a new common place folk theory and might be acquired at ever younger ages.

There is no question that the children of today will grow up in a fundamentally different world than even I did, but the really interesting question is how this growing up in a hypertechnological, hypermedial, hyperbiological (given the dominance of neuroscientific genetic and medical discussions in the public sphere) and often reductionist world will change and influence their folk theories of how the world works as well as their cognitive conceptualizations. I’m really looking forward to the future.
See you in late August.

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