Babies, Mothers, and Science

May 14th, 2012

Several weeks ago, the New York Times ran a profile of Dr. Elizabeth Spelke, a professor of psychology at Harvard, in their Profiles in Science series.  Titled Insights From the Youngest Minds, it describes Dr. Spelke’s research exploring what infants understand about social groups and social expectations.

Dr. Spelke, who became known first for her research on how infants learn about objects and numbers, says she studies babies because the adult mind is far too complicated.  She is interested in learning about the organization of the human mind, “why we’re good at some tasks and bad at others”, and thinks the best way to determine what humans are born knowing is to ask the recently born.

How do you ask newborn babies anything?  Babies can’t talk but they can stare, and researchers have devised fascinating experiments that involve how long infants stare at something, what interests them and what doesn’t.  From these experiments a great deal has been learned about basic mental abilities humans are born with that are the foundation from which more sophisticated abilities develop.

More recently, researchers have begun identifying some of the baseline settings of infants’ social intelligence.  Some of their findings are fascinating, such as that infants just a few weeks old show a clear liking for people who use speech patterns the babies have already been exposed to, including regional accents.  Also, accent seems more important than race.  For example, a white American baby accepts food more readily from a black English-speaking adult than a white European.

Dr. Spelke is trying to understand how the basic areas of the human mind interact “to yield our uniquely restless and creative intelligence”.  She says that even though “our core systems are fundamental yet limited, we manage to get beyond them.”  These core systems amount to a baby’s first deciphering of the physical world, and quoting Dr. Spelke again, “The job of the baby is to learn”.

Mothers are usually the first teachers.  But it is fascinating to discover from experiments and research how much babies actually bring to this learning process, the abilities they arrive with at birth that enable them to relate to others and begin to grasp the working of the world around them.  This is quite a departure from earlier beliefs that  babies were an empty slate upon whom we as parents would write, giving us all the power to shape  the outcome.  Although our interactions with our babies are the source of their earliest learning, increasingly they are learning from everything and everyone around them. 

A negative result of the increased knowledge about child development that has come from research is that too often it is used to prescribe to parents what they should be doing with their babies and children.   The recognition that babies are learning from all the experiences of everyday life, being fed, talked to, sung to, played with, is often turned into the idea that babies have to be taught in specific ways.  Then supposedly educational material is produced such as the Baby Einstein videos, special mobiles, flashcards, and the like.  The truly important role of parents is distorted, and parents worry if they are not “educating” or “stimulating” their babies in the way they think they are supposed to.

There is another part to the story about Dr.Spelke that emerges from this article.  She is described as having “passionately combined science and motherhood,” and relates this to her feelings of guilt about her own mother who gave up her career in music when her daughter was born.  Wanting her children never to go through this experience, she would take them with her to her lab or have meetings at home.  The article then goes on to describe all the things Dr.Spelke did as a mother, supplementing their public school education at home, baking birthday cakes (from scratch!), creating Halloween costumes, and the like.  Her own daughter is quoted saying, “As a new mother myself, I don’t know how my mom did it.”

The personal aspect of this article drew some irate comments online.  Some readers were irritated by descriptions of Dr. Spelke’s physical appearance, dress and family life, wondering if that kind of description would be given of a male subject.  One reader notes that the article’s author seemed compelled to prove that Spelke is a good mother and wonders if we ever need to prove that male scientists are good fathers.  Another reader seems miffed that the description of fulfilling dual responsibilities is treated as something exceptional, while still another reader is inspired to keep working at doing something that feels so difficult.

Clearly, meeting the demands of work and family life is a challenge that mothers – and these days more fathers as well – still have to solve in individual ways.  Perhaps the more helpful point to take from this story is how much we can learn by observing our children during the time we are with them, and how this enhances our role as their teachers.

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