shytone  books  music  essays  home  exploratories  new this month

book reviews



Peter Hobson: The Cradle of Thought:
exploring the origins of thinking
(Macmillan: 2002)


“Ever since the seventeenth century, when Aristotle’s distinction between knowledge and desire was elaborated into a threefold division of mental activity involving cognition (thought), conation (the will) and affect (feelings), we have had a terrible time trying to piece Humpty Dumpty together again. The best and perhaps the only way to heal these rents in our picture of the mind is to study early development. If we can start with babies, and follow how babies act and feel and perceive things, then maybe we will see how thinking is distilled out of infant-level ways of relating that are imbued with feeling and action. That is the primary aim of this book: to begin with the mental life of babies and to end up with a story of how thinking - or to be more precise, the kind of creative, flexible and imaginative thinking that characterizes humans - emerges in the course of early development. In order to arrive at an accurate story, we also need to see what happens when human development is deflected from its usual path...[because] it turns out that perspectives from atypical development force us to make radical changes in our customary ways of thinking about thinking. Already, then, we have two ways in which we can begin to integrate what has been split asunder: we can examine the psychological abilities of children and adults through the lens of infancy, and we can study normal and abnormal development alongside each other. With these approaches, if we are lucky, we may also achieve two further kinds of conceptual integration: the bodily with the mental, and the individual with the social.”
(Hobson, pp.xiii-iv)

When people today think of the cognitive revolution in psychology, the strongest impression is that of information processing models, drawn from computer science. Yet this was hardly the case in the beginning, for most of the early ammunition against strict behaviorism was actually drawn from developmental psychology - most specifically, from the research tradition begun by Jean Piaget - and ethology (the general study of animal behaviour), rather than such information-processing approaches... Moreover, A.R. Luria - the key collaborator of the other great founding figure in the modern developmental tradition, Lev Vygotsky - is also one of the fathers of modern neuroscience...the most important source of new evidence in psychology today, and one now increasingly opposed to the information-processing models of old.

So, perhaps it is about time we all paid some more attention to developmental psychology which is, arguably, now the oldest coherent major tradition in the discipline, as well as one which is increasingly well-supported by the latest findings in neuroscience. Despite this, as we shall see, the fundamental focus of such studies is not particularly amenable to the tools of neuroscience - for that focus, since Vygotsky, has been on what takes place between inherently-social people, rather than those isolates bequeathed to us by Descartes...who look, in retrospect, suspiciously like those sufferers from autism who show us what it is to lack such engagement with our others. Thankfully, however, in Peter Hobson we have an exceptional guide to this terrain, as well as a genuinely original thinker in his own right...


“Some things about children become so familiar to us that we lose sight of how remarkable they are - and lose sight, too, of how little we understand the processes that underlie developmental achievements.... Especially startling insights into typical development have come from a condition of childhood that was first described in the 1940s: early childhood autism. Centrally and critically, autism reveals what it means to have mutual engagement with someone else. It reveals this by presenting us with the tragic picture of human beings for whom such engagement is partial or missing. The autistic child’s lack of emotional connectedness with others is devastating in its own right, but also it has quite startling implications for the child’s ability to think. These implications are what enables us to see how thinking itself is born out of interpersonal relations. So, what is autism? Autism is what we call a syndrome, which means nothing more or less than a collection of clinical features that cluster together.... The abnormalities it presents are these: a profound and characteristic impairment in social relations; a severe limitation in communication with other people, often including abnormalities in language; an impoverishment in imagination, including play; and unusual repetitive preoccupations and rituals. The challenge for psychologists is surprisingly simple to state and remarkably difficult to meet: to explain why these things are found together...[when] there does not seem to be a simple relationship between what is wrong with the mental processes of people with autism, and what is wrong with their brains.... [Moreover,] investigations of individuals with autism seem to throw up a variety of causes that apply in some cases and not in others, and that seem to explain only fragments of the clinical picture. Even researchers who have recognized the need to trace the cascading effects of abnormality over the course of development have failed to construct a unifying theory of autism.”
(Hobson, pp.5-7)

“I think there is a reason why we feel so near to understanding autism, yet so far away. It is the same reason why we seem to understand a lot about thinking in human beings, yet are largely baffled when we seek the roots of thought in children’s early development. The reason is that we are preoccupied with explanations that focus on individuals in isolation...[while] we need to realize that one of the most powerful influences on development is what happens between people. Or, in the case of autism, that one of the most harmful things that can affect development is when certain kinds of interaction fail to happen.... There may be a variety of different childhood disorders that prevent a given child from experiencing vital aspects of interpersonal relations - and autism may result. Or conditions in the child may conspire with deficiencies in what his environment provides by way of interpersonal contact - and autism may result. Or, in the most extreme circumstances, autism may even arise because a child is subject to the most terrible privation, and receives almost nothing by way of sensitive care. In each case, we shall understand autism only if we grasp how the lack of certain forms of interpersonal experience has a profound impact on the developing mind.”
(Hobson, pp.7-8)

As should already be clear by this stage, Hobson is an exemplary writer - clear & insightful, highly sensitive to nuance and (most importantly) willing to work over material until its full meaning is evident to the reader. Even more significantly, he also shows a similarly-painstaking approach to dealing with experimental work - both his own, and that of others in this very difficult area. The result is that we come to know we are in good hands, as it were, and are encouraged to think-through difficult issues, rather than being presented with a fait accompli to simply take on faith. A good example of this may be found in Hobson’s critique of naive non-developmental notions of inherited structures “for” acquisitions such as language which, as he aptly demonstrates, are inherently vacuous unless conceived of in purely mechanistic terms (and then, of course, they are disproven by both the psychological and neurological evidence) for, otherwise, we are still then left with the same fundamental problem - of how such develop in interaction with the environment of maturing brain...an environment which is, of course, social:


“We need to begin at the beginning - before thought. It is only because of what happens before thought that thought becomes possible.... [And,] it seems that [newborn] infants have abilities to perceive actions and expressions in another person, and then translate what is perceived in the other to plan for their own actions and expressions. They then make strenuous efforts to copy the other person. Giannis [Kugiumutzakis] concludes that infants have a basic drive to match the behaviour and in a way the mind of another person, because they are endowed with a ‘motive system that is seeking another emotional being with whom to play together a cooperative, complementary, intersubjective game’. For many scientists this is going too far. Justified skepticism is a worthy hallmark of the scientific endeavour, and here is a case where skepticism is justified...[as] there is only so much we can say with confidence on the basis of studies of imitation alone. So...let us turn to studies of slightly older infants, when they are two or three months old, and see what we find there.... A responsive mother may dovetail with her infant in such a way that ‘the two behave in complete concert as if dancing together’. Here [Helen] Trevarthen is attempting to characterize intersubjectivity between infant and mother, and to show how the experiences of one are linked to the experiences of the other: not only does the infant’s behaviour express her own consciousness and purposes, but these expressions are coordinated with the behaviour and experiences of another person.... [And,] by the age of six weeks, the infant’s ability to sustain eye contact with someone is a strong draw to interpersonal engagement. It is important to appreciate that here we are dealing not with isolated bits of behaviour, but with coherent patterns of relatedness between infant and adult.... There has been vigorous debate among developmental psychologists about the respective roles of infant and mother in these social exchanges.... For myself, I am persuaded by the account of [Edward] Tronick and his colleagues, who deftly express their perspective as follows: ‘Never is one partner causing the other to do something. One musician does not cause the other to play the next note. In the same manner neither the mother nor the infant causes the other to greet or to attend. They are mutually engaged in an activity’. The thrust of this account is that both participants in the exchange modify their actions in accord with the feedback they receive from their partner - and so the interchange is genuinely reciprocal.”
(Hobson, pp.29-36)

As Hobson notes, the most persuasive evidence for reciprocity at such an early age comes from experimental work where the conditions required are deliberately disrupted in carefully-selected ways - such as the still-face challenge and timing manipulation work. The results of such experiments clearly point to infants’ sensitivity to even seemingly minor disruptions to reciprocity, and strongly support the perspective taken here by Hobson - that, even at the earliest ages, we are seeing mutual engagement...

“So, what are infants doing with these remarkable abilities to perceive and respond to the behaviour of other people in one-to-one interactions? If all is going well, they are developing increasingly rich and pleasurable forms of mutually sensitive interpersonal engagement. I shall concentrate on just one specially interesting and instructive form of engagement - structured play. By ‘structured play’ I do not mean play with formal rules, but rather play that has a certain pattern to it. Familiar examples are peekaboo, ring-a-ring-o-roses, and ‘this little piggy went to market’. The American developmental psychologist Jerome Bruner has drawn attention to the fact that such games operate according to a format with demarcated roles, and a place for accompanying gestures and sounds that dovetail with the action...[and] allow the infant to adopt a progressively more active role. Eventually, towards and beyond the end of the first year, the infant begins to switch roles with the adult.... In addition, the regularities allow variations on a theme.... [In these ways,] the games embody some important features of communication, and in due course they provide a kind of scaffolding for the introduction of language itself.”
(Hobson, pp.42-3)

“For most of us, the kinds of person-to-person exchange that are already finely tuned in infants continue to underpin human social relations throughout the lifespan. There is a universal body language, more basic than the language of words, that connects us with other people mentally.... I have said that the psychological processes we are considering happen before thought. This is true in a number of senses. They occur before thought develops in the individual, in that they emerge in the first year of life before creative symbolic thinking has begun. They also happen before thought in the sense that even in adults they seem to occur in a rapid and automatic way, without the need for premeditation.... [And] in general, these processes of communication are heavily dependent upon the functioning of the older and deeper parts of the brain, rather than those more recently developed outer layers of of brain (the neocortex) that seem specialized for more sophisticated mental operations.”
(Hobson, p.48)

“We have come a long way quite quickly. We have seen how early in life babies become engaged with other people. The engagement is intense, and it is highly emotional. It happens because babies are built to perceive and react to what they see in the behaviour and expressions of people, and because they are ready to take their role in the communicative dance of interpersonal exchange. From the first months of life, they relate to people as people. They do more than show coordinated patterns of behaviour with other people; they are emotionally connected with them.... [And] to be emotionally connected with someone is to experience the someone else as a person.... It is through emotional connectedness that a baby discovers the kind of thing a person is. A person is the kind of thing with which one can feel and share things, and the kind of thing with which one can communicate.”
(Hobson, pp.58-9)

And, it is in neglecting/dismissing such interpersonal/developmental fundamentals that most of our philosophy & psychology goes so badly astray...isolating the deeply interdependent aspects of brain function we think of as “thought” & “emotion”, reifying complex processes as abstracted capabilities - as if they were mechanistic “modules” we could install at will - and, overall, treating the mind/brain as a profoundly asocial and non-biological entity...

The only real prophylactic against such learned foolishness, however, is a serious understanding of the lessons developmental psychology has to teach us - and, those lessons require us to rethink the very bases of our behaviour and understanding...to reconceive what we now take for granted as the result of a developmental process, with far more modest beginnings. But, it is only by doing so that we can seriously begin to understand how human beings are made:


“Clearly, personal relations are not just about exchanging smiles and coos...they are also about sharing experiences of things...about exchanging points of view, or agreeing and disagreeing about this or that, or sharing jokes. If we can clarify how infants exchange with someone else so that communication is about a third object or outside event, then we may draw closer to seeing how they come to think about things. The first signs of a broadening and deepening in the way an infant relates to others occur in the months around a baby’s first birthday...[when] the infant’s interactions with another person begin to have reference to the things that surround them. The baby starts showing her mother dolls, she gestures in request for a sweetie, she refuses to hand over the keys, she is affected by her mother’s reactions to things, and so on. These events reveal that the infant is no longer restricted to a focus either on an object or on a person, but instead may be sensitive to a person’s relation to an object. This means that the infant’s experience of the other person has expanded. She registers that the other person is connected not only with herself, but with objects and events in the world. She is becoming aware of the other person’s awareness of things, conscious of the other’s consciousness.... [This is] a new kind of emotional engagement...[but] we should think twice before describing infants in terms that are more applicable to grown-ups. Otherwise, we may mistake what our grown-up experiences grow out of. To begin with, then, the infant registers that an adult is attuned to herself. Such awareness is present from two months, at least. Next, the infant becomes aware that an adult is oriented to what she is doing.... Then the infant begins to relate to an adult’s actions and attitudes towards something quite separate from either herself or the adult. It is this achievement which shows that the infant has reached the stage of secondary subjectivity.”
(Hobson, pp.61-4)

“We are witnessing the beginning of a Copernican revolution in infants only twelve months old.... The world is not only a world-for-me, a world that has meaning because of what I feel about it or what I do with it. The world also has meanings for others, and the meaning for someone else can affect the meaning it has for me. I say this is the beginning of a revolution, because...the discovery is a discovery in action and feeling, rather than a discovery in thought. I believe that it is only because the infant finds herself reacting in these ways - identifying with others and being affected by others’ reactions to things - that in due course she arrives at a true understanding of her own position.... Initial forms of perspective-taking are not intended as such by the infant - that is, they are not thoughtful attempts to put herself in the shoes of someone else.... The reason why they have both the motive and the ability to behave in these ways is that they observe and participate in what they witness in other people’s actions and attitudes. Their perception of others is not like their perception of cars or buildings. Being affected by others is a design feature of human beings - a design feature that transforms what a human being is.”
(Hobson, pp.73-5)

Hobson’s account here makes perfect sense of a genuine dilemma central to all adequate discussions of symbolic activity - most incisively posed in Terrence Deacon’s The Symbolic Species - namely, how such a counter-intuitive approach to the world ever got started in the first place? To my mind, the necessary scaffolding has two dimensions...the mimetic culture proposed by Merlin Donald in his evolutionary scenario, and the exceptional emotional attunement/mutual entrainment between human beings - far exceeding any other species we have tested - and its consequences over the extended infancy and childhood which also marks our species. These two are also clearly interconnected - and, as Hobson goes on to show, the links between such emotional interplay and thought & language are both profound and unobvious to the adult mind...or, at least until they are pointed out to us...


“Here I reach the last of the three developmental steps leading up to the ability to think...this time, more of a leap than a step - and move to the middle of the second year in an infant’s life. There are three areas of development that are especially relevant for our concerns. The first is the appearance of symbolic play as a new and exciting element in the child’s repertoire of activities. The second is the growth of a new awareness of self and others. And the third is the most marvellous of all intellectual accomplishments - the emergence of language. Intertwined with these three achievements are changes in the child’s interpersonal sensitivity and responsiveness.... What builds upon what in the construction of the mind? I begin with symbolic play.... Pretending is a mental kind of doing, and one that entails a sophisticated form of self-reflective awareness...[because] one cannot accidentally pretend.... That is the point of pretending - one chooses to make this stand for that.... Can it really be that a child less than two years old is already aware of himself and his own ability to alter the meanings of things by choice? ...Our skepticism may be lessened once we find other evidence that the infant’s self-awareness has deepened.... There is plenty to indicate dramatic changes in the infant’s self-awareness toward the middle of her second year.... In [Jerome] Kagan’s research, self-descriptive utterances were absent at around eighteen months but increased dramatically between nineteen and twenty-four months, and by twenty-seven months they included sophisticated statements such as ‘I do it myself’ or ‘I can’t do it.’ The fact that such comments have become frequent by the end of the second year reflects how the child has become motivated to comment on her own behaviour now that she has acquired a new level of awareness of what she is doing.... In addition, silly behaviour and signs of coyness or embarrassment are rarely seen in infants under fifteen months, but they become much more common around eighteen months.... The signs of coyness and embarrassment (and self-admiration, come to that) reveal that she has a sense of herself as embodied, and moreover a sense of herself as the potential object of other people’s evaluations... Once again we see that perspectives are more than something that other people have. Perspectives are also internal to the mind.”
(Hobson, pp.76-82)

“Which brings us to the flowering of language. I believe that these new forms of self- and other-awareness are tied in with the surge that takes place in a young child’s vocabulary in the middle of the second year. The reason is that role-taking is at the very core of language....[and] orienting to a focus is a very basic characteristic of language. The topic is what the words are about. The comment expresses a particular perspective on the topic. [And] it seems that topics and comments are implicit features of the games that precede language. And, of course, a caregiver is endlessly weaving language into the playful goings-on. Moreover, when grammar appears in the more elaborate utterances of children in the middle of the second year, the structure of that grammar reflects those aspects of the communicative games that have been receiving emphasis over the previous months. Words pick out topics (they are no longer assumed), and words (no longer merely gestures) express some comment on those topics. Moreover, the kinds of words that appear - those that refer to agents, actions, objects of actions, recipients of action, where things are, and whose things they are - relate to the kinds of thing that were highlighted by the formats of the game. One final ingredient in this recipe for language comprehension and use is that the infant has been initiated into the way of using standardized means of expression, so she has learned that there are acceptable and effective devices to convey what she needs to convey.... [Thus,] in many respects, language slots into patterns of interaction and mutual adjustment between infant and caregiver that are already well practiced before language. The patterning of an infant’s social exchanges may do a lot to explain how language is acquired. Words can replace gestures and vocal expressions to achieve the communication the infant is seeking - provided, that is, there are already means to register and influence what someone else is attending to and expressing, and to recognize what someone else is doing in communicating. The infant ‘simply’ has to realize what words are for, and how they express meanings.”
(Hobson, pp.83-6)

Once we fully think-through Hobson’s arguments here, it is in fact remarkable just how much later (languaged) thought & behaviour is actually prefigured in early games and other forms of interplay...albeit in a less complex fashion. But, it is in exploring the fundamental grounds for this - in the “means to register and influence what someone else is attending to and expressing, and to recognize what someone else is doing in communicating” - that developmental psychology makes its most significant challenge to our usual ways of thought re language...as, sadly, no other discipline takes such matters seriously. Yet, as Hobson so clearly explains, they are essential to how we become what we are:


“Thinking arises out of repeated experiences of moving from psychological stance to another in relation to things and events. Critically important is the kind of mental movement involved. It is not enough that the baby shifts perspectives by herself. In order to grasp that she can move in her attitudes to the world, the movements have to happen through someone else. Especially significant are those occasions when a baby’s attitude to something is changed because of her reaction to the attitude of another person.... It sounds baffling, but in order to do all this, she first has to take a perspective on herself and her own attitudes. It is only by doing this, by taking a view on her own ways of construing the world, that she can begin to think in terms of her own and other people’s perspectives. This happens through a particular species of identification: the child identifies with others’ attitudes towards the child’s own attitudes and actions. Once more, the child is lifted out of her own stance, and is drawn into adopting another perspective - this time a perspective on herself and what she is feeling and doing. She becomes self-aware through others....[and] now she can begin to sort out what it means to have one perspective among many.... It is for this reason she becomes able to adjust her actions to the perspective of someone else.... It is for this reason that she can adopt a perspective towards her own actions and attitudes.... It is for this reason that, most wonderful of all, she can choose to apply new perspectives to things. When she does this with the kind of non-serious intent of which she has been capable for months, she is engaging in symbolic play.”
(Hobson, pp.105-7)

“Emerson had a good point when he said that language is fossil poetry. An infant who is beginning to apprehend symbolic meanings in another person’s sounds must be a bit like a spectator peering at Turner’s painting of the steam-boat in the storm. The meanings will eventually become definite, but for now they are caught up in a maelstrom of happenings. More specific meanings crystallize slowly, as figure and ground separate. At the same time, the soapsuds and whitewash of non-symbolic sounds and gestures are becoming transformed by the attitude of the child/spectator into matter charged with symbolic meaning.... Symbols play their part by anchoring meanings, so that meanings can be kept separate from and combined with each other. They become the coinage of thought. But they arise in the context of communication between people....not privately and mysteriously in the head, but out there in the world.... Indeed, the meaning of symbols are rarely as discrete or particular as we suppose [for] they are suffused with the experiences which surrounded their acquisition. Few symbols are purely intellectual things, because they are anchored in a person’s actions and feelings towards the world and the people in it. Indeed, words would not be about anything at all if people were not connected to their surroundings emotionally.”
(Hobson, pp.120-1)

Peter Hobson’s The Cradle of Thought is a tour-de-force, a brilliantly-written and sensitively-argued account of our best current understandings of early childhood development - particularly notable from within a discipline (scientific psychology) much more typically marked by a terrible prose style. And, as we now begin to move away from inappropriately mechanistic notions of brain function - under the influence, in particular, of the essentially  organicist approaches dominant in the neurosciences - it is becoming increasingly clear that the developmental approach is, actually, the only relatively mature tradition within human psychology - in that its models have long been fully consilient w/the biological fundamentals...

So, forget (for the moment) what you think you know about psychology...and, try learning from the right place - from the beginning... And, just as we need evolution and history to put humans in their proper context, so, too, do we need development - since we are, all, the products of same. To my mind, people’s deep ignorance about the real scientific work in this area is, perhaps, the key reason why so many simplistic “understandings” of thought & language persist in even educated circles - and, also, why the Freudian mythology continues to exert its fascination. But, there is a simple cure for such disorders, and The Cradle of Thought is a beautifully-written introduction to - and extension upon - this little-known body of work...without which, our self-understandings will be sadly incomplete.


“As a very young child comes to understand more about the mind, her own mind is transformed. This is a rather curious thing. It is especially curious because the complementary claim is also true: a child’s understanding of the mind is transformed by changes that are taking place in her own ability to think about things. The clearest example of this is when a child starts to use symbols. If my argument is correct, a young child begins to use symbols because she grasps the fact that people have the mental ability to attribute meanings to things...[and] that we each have a subjective perspective, a personal way of experiencing the world, that we can apply to things. Her new insight that people can have alternative takes on things has led to revolutionary changes in the form of her intellectual life: she can make one thing stand for another, and she picks up what another speaker is meaning in such a way that she can adopt the other’s expressions and words for what she herself wants to express and communicate. At the same time, her new-found grasp of symbols allows her to locate and anchor aspects of her interpersonal understanding.... So, at just the time when she apprehends something deeper about people with minds, she acquires a new intellectual device for stabilizing and clarifying that understanding. Symbols, and especially words, will help her to sort out and refine what she has gleaned from her engagements with others. Even very young children cannot pull themselves off the ground by tugging at their own feet. So it is just as well that there are other people to lift them into the realm of symbolic thinking. It is also just as well that other people provide the means for them to understand what is involved in having a mind.”
(Hobson, pp.239-40)


John Henry Calvinist