Bye Bye Extraneous Elephants

I’m doing the desk research for the chapter on perception and attention in the forthcoming book, and I’m struck by how systematically kids’ spotlight of attention narrows over the years until it matches our own, and how much I’ll miss my daughter’s erratic searchlight now it’s starting to settle down. Writing the following kind of broke me:

I remember a supermarket trip with our daughter when she was about 18 months old. From her vantage point in the trolley, she pointed out everything that interested her. Distracted by the task of getting through the shopping list (and oriented solely to the shelves-that-might-have-the-things-I-need-and-for-goodness-sakes-Tesco-stop-moving-them-please!) I was doing that kind of parental echoing thing without fully listening… 


‘Yes, darling, yummy strawberries.’ 


‘Yes, juicy oranges!’ 

‘A elephant!’ 

‘Yes, darling, a nice, big…what?! Where?’ 

‘A elephant in the bananas!’

A picture of a small plastic toy elephant with a raised trunk and a bit of a cheeky look in its eye
Bye bye elephant – picture by Magda Ehlers

There was indeed an abandoned toy elephant in the bananas. Without the attentional shackles of a shopping list, my 18 month old’s attention could wander happily, bringing me wonders like these. 

I miss those days when everything from ‘windmills’ (wind turbines) to ‘pijishins’ (her first attempts at ‘pigeon’) and ‘bishisicles’ (bicycles) was worthy of note. As her spotlight of attention narrows, she’s more capable of navigating the adult world, and of helping me find the cornflakes, but I wonder if we’ll experience the wonder of spotting the rogue elephant in the bananas ever again.

Making toddlers fall over (for science, you monster)

I just saw the most divine figure in a paper from 1974:

Figure 2 from thr 1974 Paper by Lee and Aronson. There are three panels showing a) a stick figure representing an infant standing in the swinging room. b) the infant's internal response to the walls swinging away (which is indicated by a dotted line showing that the infant senses that they are swaying backwards.) Panel c shows the infant stick figure with a solid line arcing towards the front of the room, showing the direction of most infants' motor responses. there is also a dotted version of the stick figure lying on the floor, presumably to indicate the children who fell on their asses - or faces.
In the ‘swinging room’ experiment, which investigates whether vision or the vestibular system is dominant in early balance, Lee and Aronson of the University of Edinburgh successfully made infants fall over 33 percent of the time. Now that’s empiricism I can get behind…

:chef’s kiss emoji:

The setup is a room with a static floor but the ‘walls and ceiling’ are an inverted open box that can be swung at will by the experimenters. This makes it look like the floor is tilting (and is the essence of carnival funhouses from time immemorial.) Adults in this setting will sway a little – it’s hard to ignore your eyes even when your ears and muscles are telling you you’re not moving. But what’s the story for infants? When do they learn to trust their non-visual cues?

“Not by the age of 16 months” is the answer. Poor dotted stick figure in panel c. Lee and Aronson only did the experiment with seven small subjects. Whether that’s because they ran out of time, volunteers, or ability to keep a straight face is lost to history…