How do we break free of the rules of biology?

Chris Fernyhough has written a sometimes touching book on his daughter’s mental development in the first three years. But he fails to get to the heart of the infant’s transition from biological machine to human agent.

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The Baby in the Mirror describes the first three years of Athena Fernyhough’s life, as recorded and written by her father, Chris.

These three years are of obvious importance to Athena and her family, just as any three years of anyone’s life are important to them and their loved ones; but the first three years are of general and special importance to everyone. In part this is because the child is new to the world, and he or she represents the future; it is also because something psychologically very exciting is about to happen. The first three years of normal development involve the transition from a vague state of biological being to a definite state of mental being. We become, as Chris Fernyhough argues in The Baby in the Mirror, ‘a centre of experience where once there was nothing’.

Exactly how we become that ‘centre of experience’ and the precise nature of the ‘nothing’ that precedes it are, of course, highly contentious. Fernyhough notes that it seems unreasonable to think of the newborn as being entirely insentient or numb, but it is also unlikely that newborn babies can think and experience sensations. Newborns enter the world equipped with receptors and processors that can facilitate reflex reactions to the world and enable the infant to focus on essential, salient aspects of the environment. This means that newborns can alert their caregivers when they are physically threatened by pressure, noise, temperature, hunger and so forth, and newborns can focus on important stimuli, such as faces. But, for the newborn, there ‘is no centre or circumference, no subject or object, no inside or out’, as Fernyhough says, and so their various reactions and objects of attentional focus cannot yet be discriminated one from another.

The transition from this indiscriminate buzzing mass of confusion to discriminate cohesive actions and experiences occurs, at first, via biologically released actions mediated by the reactions of primary caregivers. In the early weeks of life, for example, the newborn has very few cells in the centre of her eye and is poorly equipped to view anything of low contrast. Consequently, her eyes flicker around the edges of a scene and rest on areas of light and dark. By eight weeks, however, these cells have developed and the higher regions of the brain have now begun to process visual information. Facial features, in particular, become the centre of observation. Parents generally notice this and may feel that their baby ‘recognises’ them with smiles. A new interaction becomes possible, which parents will read meaning into. As Fernyhough writes:

‘If Athena makes a random gurgling sound which I think sounds like a classic baby coo, then I respond to it with all the emotional dials turned up full. I fill it with meaning, and turn that meaning back to her. The emotional stakes are raised: suddenly this matters, to both of us. As soon as she can begin to connect my response with an action of hers that triggered it in the first place, she can start to close the circle of her own emotions: how feelings lead to responses, and back to feelings, world without end. Infants’ social behaviour comes to have meaning because we take it as having meaning. We create our babies’ smiles before they do.’

Fernyhough’s observation is important in recognising that meaning is transferred from ‘out here’ to ‘in there’. The baby clearly plays a role in that transfer but the content is gained from those conscious agents around her; meaning and content are not somehow mined direct from the depths of her neurophysiology but are added from the outside.

The way that we understand and organise the world becomes the basis for how the developing infant understands and organises the world. At first, meaning is not hers but ours. Through development, our meaning becomes hers and the rules of biology gradually succumb to the rules of social interaction. These new rules are constraining – only if X happens can you can do Y – but are also liberating because they provide a guide to behaviour. Rules straighten out the contrasts between important events and provide a structure and a self-orientation. In a sense, and as explained elsewhere by author GH Mead, the presence of these rules constitutes the emergence of a mind (1). Internalising these rules of engagement within the individual allows meaning and a self to emerge.

Fernyhough sometimes nicely describes these developments and has written a generally interesting and poppy account of developmental psychology. However, the presentation is much too sugary and the theoretical framework frustratingly narrow, such that it diminishes the actual wonder of development. These weaknesses are not unrelated.

In part, the use of a single child and a parental perspective inevitably creates a cloying emotionality. When Athena said ‘Laggy loo’ at six months, Fernyhough explains that he and his wife ‘took it as an expression of wistful optimism, of life’s ability to promise and foreclose at the same time. We could imagine it as a refrain from a seventeenth-century ballad…’ We spare you in this review from the made-up ballad that Fernyhough, unfortunately, does not spare his readers from.

Most parents start to lose perspective when they talk about their own children, so we can forgive Fernyhough some excess. We can also assume that he simply forgot the horror and terror that accompanies the wonder of early parenting, and forgive that, too. It is difficult, however, to forgive comments like this: ‘But love is not a limited resource, like dishwasher rinse-aid, which can be topped up when it runs dry.’ The endless analogies and similes strain and become tiresome. We also wonder just how many parents worry about alcoholism following ‘a finger-dab of vintage Perrier Jouet’ or, for that matter, how many might relate to the luxury of a six-month sabbatical in Australia. It all starts to feel terribly indulgent and insular.

The emotionality and claustrophobia are perhaps exaggerated because, despite the author seeming to recognise the social nature of development, he adopts an overriding biological or nativist perspective. For example, Fernyhough explains that Athena fixates upon faces because she ‘was born to look at them’. There is truth in this, of course, but what Fernyhough describes is a physiological reflex not a psychological phenomenon. Psychology arrives when the infant is able to label and organise visual stimuli and use them as cues to locate herself within those stimuli and to control behaviour. The point, as Vygotsky argued, is that humans don’t just exist within an environment of stimuli; they exist within a world of sense and meaning, enabling self-discovery and environmental manipulation to serve our own ends (2). Without this very human development we would be merely animals. Perhaps faintly aware that he is ‘animalising’ human development, Fernyhough feels it necessary to ladle on emotional shtick about the wonders of babies.

Fernyhough might reasonably protest that he does not adopt a nativist position towards the higher functions uniquely associated with human beings. Indeed, there is a welcome discussion of Vygotsky and recognition that the roots of human thought lie within the relations between people. These external relations amongst people are gradually internalised to become the infants’ own relation of thoughts.

Even here, however, Fernyhough includes a nativist perspective. For example, to explain how Athena comes to understand other minds, Fernyhough suggests an innate neural structure ‘allowing the brain to process social information and build up knowledge about the rules that underlie it. Nurture interacts with nature in allowing children to develop a body of core knowledge, which they can then use in unpicking the complexities of human social interaction.’

The problem with this approach is that it remains animalistic, with the self emerging as the outcome of mechanical interactions between nature and nurture. Except the self cannot emerge from this interaction because mechanical interactions can only result in mechanical states (being themselves mechanical processes) that will precisely lack the organisation, purpose and direction that are generally associated with being a self. How the infant comes to be a self that can use that ‘body of core knowledge’ is thus left unexplained.

A recurring problem with the developmental description provided by Fernyhough is the subordination of change within the infant to biology, as if she is going through a pre-ordained developmental path without her playing an active role and without any major changes as a person. Fernyhough, however, is smart enough to know that this is not an adequate explanation. Consequently, he reaches for imitation, concept learning and mind reading as gateways to language acquisition and the ability to ‘act on the idea of a thing rather than the thing itself’.

But this is still inadequate because it reduces the social aspect of infant development to the theory that someone gains the ‘idea of a thing’ through individual cognitive development interacting with symbols. But recognising an actual thing (never mind the idea of a thing) and understanding it as distinct from herself already requires Athena to have put herself into the role of others in their relation to the thing. All things are recognised through meanings constituted within the social process of experience and behaviour. This process requires the mutual adjustment of the responses or actions of the infant and caregiver, an adjustment made possible by means of gestures and then language, which allows Athena to adopt the perspective of others. From that perspective of others she can use gesture or language to lift the thing out of the social process where it is logically or implicitly located. She can also lift herself out and see herself become herself (1). In other words, she has ceased to be just individual biology and has begun to have a social mind, which is the most critical development Athena will ever undergo.

The difficulty in countering a nativist position is that we are obviously biological in our physical construction and that fact has importance for what we are. But we think there is good reason not to be overly concerned with that because the biological baseline is given. What is not given is the transition from biological machines into human agents. Focusing on biology can give the impression that psychology merely follows biology, which means the psychology is just as animalistic as the biology. Describing Athena’s first three years of life raises considerable suspicion about that impression, but the author does not provide any principle by which we might understand development. Fernyhough uses psychoanalysis, cognitive theories, Vygotsky and nativism without any suggestion that these different schools of thought might lead to radically different understandings of development.

Fernyhough provides a series of often interesting thoughts about minds and consciousness and the things that minds and consciousness enable, but these remain at the level of description. Without any attempt to explain the origin and character of mind and consciousness, we are left to wonder who Athena is, and how she arrived at the person she so clearly is by the end of three years.

Stuart Derbyshire is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Birmingham. Anand Raja is reading Psychology at the University of Birmingham.

The Baby in the Mirror: A Child’s World from Birth to Three, by Charles Fernyhough is published by Granta Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Mind, Self and Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist, GH Mead CW Morris (ed), University of Chicago Press, 1967

(2) Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, LS Vygotsky and M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, E. Souberman (eds), Harvard University Press, 1978

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