Extreme Fear

Getting a grip on the brain's alarm system

My Toddler, the World's Cutest Psychology Experiment (With Video)

My Toddler, the World's Cutest Psychology Experiment (With Video)

For anyone interested in psychology, having a child is a fascinating experience, turning us all into amateur Jean Piagets. Having just written a book about the interplay between the frontal cortex and the amygdala (among other things), it was extremely interesting to observe a human being who had seemingly very little frontal cortex activity at all. Whatever he was feeling, boom, there it was on his face, no modulation or suppression at all. As a baby he could go through a dozen distinct facial expressions in the span of a minute.

Now that Rem is a year and a half, he's exhibiting new and fascinating behaviors all the time. Just the other day he busted out with a move that was simultaneously hilarious and baffling. Once I figured it out, it blew my mind.

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A little background: ever since Rem has been able to grab things and move them around, I've noticed that he seems to grasp the purpose of objects more easily than the details of how they must be physically manipulated. For instance, once when he wanted to put his snow boots on, he stood and put them next to his feet. When he started using spoons, he would put them in his mouth sideways. The other day, he was "helping" me when I was sweeping up the porch with a broom and a dustpan; when he held the dustpan, he’d put it on the ground, holding the handle, but hold it sideways or upside down.

The infant mind, then, reverses the famous Bauhaus dictum that "form follows function."  An adult dust-pan designer would start by thinking along these lines: I'll need a surface that can intersect evenly with a flat surface, therefore the leading edge of my dustpan will have to be flat. To Rem, these considerations are incomprehensible. A dustpan works because it is a dustpan. A spoon works because it is a spoon. To him, function precedes form.

The other day a big box of baby supplies came from Diapers.com, about two feet on a side, and once it was empty Rem turned it into a fort. He loves to crawl in there and just hang out there for a minute or two, lounging in the back corner with some stuffed animals, before getting restless and crawling out again. He's just starting to use crayons, so he scribbles on the top and sides.

A few days later, something arrived  in a smaller box, about the size of a turntable, and we gave him that to play with as well. As soon as he got it, Rem tried to climb into it, even though he was far too big. He bumped his head into the back of it, found that the rest of his body was still outside the box, tried turning this way and that, all to no avail. After a while he tried lying down with his head in the box and the rest of him sprawling outside, like he sometimes lounges in his bigger box. It was pathetic and hilarious at the same time.

Clearly, to Rem the dimensions of the box were not salient; it was a box, and therefore its purpose was to be climbed into. After doing a little research, I learned that this phenomenon is well known in child-psychology circles, where it is known as "scale error." There are quite a few videos of toddlers caught in the act of falling afoul of it; here's one:

I feel a little sadistic for enjoying it so much, but rarely is science so enlightening and adorable at the same time.

The idea of "scale error" really does have profound implications, because it's a window into the very earliest origins of how we as individuals come to think about things. In short, in our basic view of the world we're not as rational as we would imagine. It is our nature to view the world in an essentialist way -- that is, to ascribe properties to objects (and people) that are independent of any physical properties. This is not a rational view, but it is pervasive and difficult to shake, precisely because it is how we first learn to think. Sometimes, in an effort to see the world in a scientific way, we have to consciously fight against our own nature.

Jeff Wise is a New York-based science writer and author of Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger.

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