Are toddlers savvy creatures?

A few years ago I read an interesting article by a well known philosopher in cognitive science, in which he espoused the theory that acquiring spoken language skills is a precondition to consciousness in little children. He argued from statistical evidence that children who are perhaps as old as 3 years don’t have a strong sense of self-consciousness or “me”, unless they are able to explicitly communicate via a spoken language. This article inspired me to pen a few thoughts on this topic. When, really, does consciousness arise in children? In the womb? At birth? A few days after birth? Perhaps in a few months? Or is it a few years?

Scientists generally balk at analyzing personal recollections of early childhood, even when narrated by perfectly rational, factual minded adults. Notwithstanding the standard arguments in favor of disregarding such 1st-person accounts of early childhood, such as one’s memories being colored by recollection and “tinkering” by the brain in subsequent stages of life, let me begin by presenting a strong recollection from my own childhood as prima facie evidence for my argument (and hopefully for the reader’s amusement). In 1977 when I was under 2 years old, my uncle who was domiciled in America came for a short stay at my grandma’s house. We often visited him there. Outwardly I was terrified of his appearance; I recall crying on my dad’s shoulder whenever my uncle looked directly at me. Perhaps it was his mischievous smile that bothered me. Curiously enough, I have a strong recollection of my own thought process at the time:

“Gosh, I’m crying…”

“This person is from America, another ‘country'”

“They call him a ‘professor'”

“He came on an ‘airplane'”

“He has brought crayons for me”

“Why should I cry when he won’t harm me?” Yes indeed, that exact thought, or at least the strong recollection of having it, along with a clear memory of my physical placement and movements during this tirade of thought.

To cap this memory, I recall collecting stacks of news magazines uncle had brought, and arranging them on a little wooden stand my mom had given me. I recall being rather proud of my magazine collection. I also recall having the fierce desire to guard them against theft (the thief usually materialized in the form of my dearly beloved brother). I certainly was not capable of reading the magazines (or understanding their contents if they were read to me), but I sure had a very strong sense of self, or “me”. I suspect I was as self-important then, as I ever was or will be! All this when I was 1+. Therefore, I have this strong hunch that I’m not alone, and that there are plenty of folks who have vivid memories of early childhood well below the age of 3 years, and perhaps a few having memories right down to the age of several months. Unluckily for me, no one within my circle of acquaintances is able to vindicate my intuition. My dad has long stretches of childhood memory of his hometown and grandma, but those memories by his own admission are when he was around 3 years old. Please take a few seconds to respond to the poll on this issue at the end of this posting.

Alright. So while we await the statistics, here is my hypothesis. I propose that very young children have a clear sense of “self” and experience the type of consciousness I recall as having had during my childhood. Crudely speaking, there is a “conscious adult” in every toddler. Or to be more accurate:

A) The sense of “self awareness” (“I”) is present from day #1, metaphorically speaking; and literally that would mean at least as early as a person can recall events.

B) The sense of a “world view” (“others”, objectivity) is present from day#1, metaphorically speaking; and literally that would mean at least as early as a person can recall events.

Don’t get me wrong; I am not advocating consciousness independent of sensory input or some kind of “soul” or conscious spirit. I’m merely saying that as far back as a person can remember (and her memories independently verified), she has been conscious. I propose this as a fundamental metaphysical principle for conscious beings. We are “conscious memories”, perhaps operating at different levels, like the Cache, RAM and Hard Disk in a digital computer. It is a continuous “interpretation” on memory, like the fetch-execute cycle of a Turing Machine, that creates our consciousness.

My conjecture is that an implicit language akin to feelings (e.g. a feeling of space, pain, fear, claustrophobia etc) is hardwired in, or rather preloaded onto, our brains. Perhaps like a ROM. And this “primitive language” (or primitive code or states of mind, call it what you like) is what makes us “speak to ourselves” way before we master a “spoken language”. The development of spoken language skills is, I suspect, accompanied by the development of “top-tier” neural circuitry to map certain specific sounds to inner feelings, and is triggered by listening to and observing others speak. However the necessary “primitive code” for the interpretation of a “world view” must essentially be genetic, handed down at conception and the hardware setup very early on. Maybe even as early on as the time of birth. [By the way, I’m not trying to compare the workings of our brains to a present day digital computer, I am using computer terminology and architecture only as an analogy]

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One Response to Are toddlers savvy creatures?

  1. shades says:

    Learning a language takes time, memory fades as the sheer amount of information absorbed increase. The ability to talk a language known to adults or the ability to remember childhood memories should not (in my humble opinion) be a factor in judging consciousness. Taking a real life example, consider the case of the deaf from birth. Do they not have consciousness? I agree with R on that we are born (or perhaps even before birth) with a skill that allows us to identify and classify all that occurs around us.

    Well written article. Thanks for sharing the thought.

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