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On Language Development Imagination Is More Important Than Knowledge

From the seventh month in utero, before a child is born, every word the mother says brings about a muscular response in the infant. A word is just a vibration of sound, and each vibration is called a phoneme. From the very beginning, there is this intimate connection between body, body movement, the brain and the formation of word structures. By the time the child is born in the world, this muscular response is myelinated—locked in as a permanent pattern.

For the first few months, what we call the in‑arms‑period, the eyes have it. Things aren’t auditory half so much as they are visual in those early months. Why? Because we couldn’t develop vision in utero. So the first few months, immediately after their birth, everything is visual to that child. They are looking, looking, looking, absorbing enormous amounts about their visual world. Around 6 to 12 months, they have what Jean Piaget called “object constancy.” He was wrong in his idea of what was happening, but he was right that it does take place. The child’s visual world simply, suddenly stabilizes. This is brought about by myelination of the axons involved in all sorts of other maturation processes.

Somewhere around the first year of life, the sensory fields of the brain—the auditory and visual fields—stabilize and mature enough so that this total entrainment locked in on the visual process is no longer needed. That’s when we shift into the great limbic structure, and this emotional child appears. Language and walking appear. Let’s look at the growth of language itself, and the relationship between word and thing. I love the work of Blurton Jones, working with Nikolaas Tinbergen, the Nobel laureate, in the cross‑cultural study of the pointing syndrome. When a little child is in his own nest, he thinks anything is safe to interact with; he will just jump right in on it. He wants to taste it, touch it, smell it, feel it and immediately say, “What is that, mama? What is that, Daddy?” The child is asking for a name label for the object.

When you give him a name, the word and the thing build into the brain as a single neural pattern. The brain does not build a neural network of the thing—its taste, touch, smell, feel and quality—and then, in addition, add to this its name as though the name were a separate item. The name builds in as an integral part of the whole “structure of knowledge,” as Piaget calls it. A structure of knowledge is a neural pattern that results from the child’s interaction with an object or an event of his or her physical world. The brain responds to each experience by creating these structures of knowledge. The name and the thing build as a single unit.

We call this “concrete language.” The word doesn’t stand for the thing; the word and the thing are the same to the early child. Ask a 2‑year-old child to say the word hand, and she’ll move her hand when she says it. Because hand means something very tangible, something very concrete. Children at this early age can’t deal with abstractions.

The child is impelled. He is driven, by nature, to interact with the object and build a structure of knowledge about it.

Naming the Object

When you take the child out in the open, away from the nest, all mammalian animals respond the same way. Blurton Jones did cross‑cultural studies of this. Here is the mama and the child. The child spots an object: Let’s say it’s a dirty, nasty, old dog. The child will stop, if he has never seen one before, point toward the object, and silently turn around and stare at the caretaker, whoever it is—grandma, papa, mama—and wait for some kind of a signal from the parent that they perceive this particular object. Getting that signal, the child interacts: to taste it, touch it, smell it, feel it, talk to it, etc., and build what we call a sensory motor structure of knowledge of that object. And, of course, he immediately wants to know the name: “What is that, mama?”

Let’s suppose that it’s a dirty, nasty, awful looking, old mongrel dog. Mama says, “Don’t dare touch that dirty, nasty, old dog.” Her acknowledgment of the dog is all the child needs. This is the model imperative. (The model imperative: The brain has built into its structures an unlimited capacity to learn. Which capacity is activated and developed is dependent on the model environment. A child born to deaf parents, who does not come into contact with spoken language, will not speak, even though the child is capable of speaking. A child born in a French-speaking family will speak French, not Japanese. That is the model imperative.) The child must have some verification that the mother is interacting and perceiving this object. In this case, the child rushes over to interact with the dirty, nasty, old dog. Mama saying “don’t,” hasn’t anything to do with it. The child is impelled. He is driven, by nature, to interact with the object and build a structure of knowledge about it.

Now, the mother’s emotional state of that—her horror, alarm, etc.—builds into the structure of knowledge as an integral part of it. Her name for the object—”dirty, nasty, old dog”—is built into the structure of knowledge. All of that is without any evaluation on the part of the child. If it’s a beautiful flower and the mother smiles and the child rushes over to pull it off its stem, stuff it in his mouth, taste it, touch it, smell it, feel it and so on, then it builds the mother’s emotional state of approval into the structure of knowledge. That, along with the word flower.

One of the most interesting phenomena that Blurton Jones found was what he called the “hallucinatory capacity” of the early child. He found in many hundreds of cases over years, all over the world, that a child would point toward an object that he could see, and that, apparently, the mother couldn’t see. And the child would keep pointing and pointing, silently looking back, trying to get some response, and would not interact, unless he got some kind of response from the mother. But the mother can’t make any response, positive or negative, because she is not perceiving that object.

This is part of the brain’s selectivity. It selects, out of an infinite realm of possibility, those phenomena which are shared by the parent. So that high degree of selectivity by which we know the brain certainly does operate, is partly organized by the model imperative. What we perceive will determine what that child perceives, which does not deny in any way that there is actually something to see.

Now, when that child grows up, and his child wants to interact with a certain category phenomena, that will not be part of that parent’s perceptual system, and he won’t give a response, and so we find that a culture or a tradition will screen from all infinite possibilities, those which then make up that cultural worldview.