March 6, 2007

Folkpsychological Development In Infants, Also Descartes' Baby Is An Awesome Title For A Book Or A Band

My wife flagged several very interesting studies on how kids' minds work and form and evolve in that looong NY Times Magazine article, "Darwin's God." I haven't gotten through it myself, but she's right; they're pretty fascinating. This one is about the "theory of mind" that most humans instinctively? innately? share, which they call folkpsychology:

The process begins with positing the existence of minds, our own and others’, that we cannot see or feel. This leaves us open, almost instinctively, to belief in the separation of the body (the visible) and the mind (the invisible). If you can posit minds in other people that you cannot verify empirically, suggests Paul Bloom, a psychologist and the author of “Descartes’ Baby,” published in 2004, it is a short step to positing minds that do not have to be anchored to a body. And from there, he said, it is another short step to positing an immaterial soul and a transcendent God.

The traditional psychological view has been that until about age 4, children think that minds are permeable and that everyone knows whatever the child himself knows. To a young child, everyone is infallible. All other people, especially Mother and Father, are thought to have the same sort of insight as an all-knowing God.

But at a certain point in development, this changes. (Some new research suggests this might occur as early as 15 months.) The “false-belief test” is a classic experiment that highlights the boundary. Children watch a puppet show with a simple plot: John comes onstage holding a marble, puts it in Box A and walks off. Mary comes onstage, opens Box A, takes out the marble, puts it in Box B and walks off. John comes back onstage. The children are asked, Where will John look for the marble?

Very young children, or autistic children of any age, say John will look in Box B, since they know that’s where the marble is. But older children give a more sophisticated answer. They know that John never saw Mary move the marble and that as far as he is concerned it is still where he put it, in Box A. Older children have developed a theory of mind; they understand that other people sometimes have false beliefs. Even though they know that the marble is in Box B, they respond that John will look for it in Box A.

Darwin's God [nytmag]
Check out DESCARTES' BABY: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human [amazon]
Check out this interview with Descartes' Baby author Paul Bloom [edge.org]

1 Comment

I got sufficiently excited by the article to run the false-belief test on our nearly five-year-old daughter this afternoon with a couple of princess finger puppets, two bowls and a plastic fairy. We were pleased to note that our daughter has in fact developed a theory of mind, as well as a moderately byzantine explanation as to why a princess might stoop to playing inconsequential pranks on one of her peers.

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