The most elusive period of our lives occurs from birth to about the age of five. Mysterious and otherworldly, infancy and early childhood are surrounded later in life by a curious amnesia, broken by flashes of memory that come upon us unbidden, for the most part, with no coherent or reliable context. With their sensorial, almost cellular evocations, these memories seem to reside more in the body than the mind; yet they are central to our sense of who we are to ourselves.
Part of the appeal of psychoanalysis may be that, in its quest to locate the faded child in the adult, it turns the adult into a kind of child at a play date with his analyst. The date is structured along the lines of imaginary play, complete with free association and open-ended conversation that can wind up anywhere; but like imaginary play, the date with the analyst follows a series of strict rules. The aim is to articulate what has been repressed, to fill in a blank in the narrative about ourselves. But as Alison Gopnik and her fellow cognitive psychologists have discovered, those years are so difficult to recapture not because of repression but because the states of consciousness and memory in early childhood are so different from those we experience later on.
“Children and adults are different forms of Homo sapiens,” writes Gopnik in The Philosophical Baby, a tour through the recent findings of cognitive science about the minds of young children. For one thing, the prefrontal lobe, which has a major part in blocking out stimuli from other parts of the brain and fostering internally driven attention, is undeveloped in young children, and doesn’t fully form in most people until they are in their twenties. Internally driven attention, cognitive research suggests, isn’t a capacity that children fully acquire until at least the age of five. What arouses them is what is in front of their eyes, the first burst of information about cause and effect in the physical world.
Highly active in the brains of infants are the occipital cortex, in the rear of the brain, which guides attention to the visual world, and the parietal cortex, which helps one adjust to new events. It’s not surprising to learn that magnetic imaging shows both these cortices light up in adults while they are engrossed in watching a movie (at the same time, the prefrontal lobe goes dormant). The suspension of disbelief and the swift orientation to a passively received bombardment of unexpected visual stimuli may approximate aspects of the infant’s state of being.
Gopnik speculates that early childhood prepares us for both the appreciation and creation of art: imaginary play among children hones the ability to entertain counterfactuals—the alternative worlds out of which art, and invention of…
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