Monday, October 10, 2022

Removing The Simplicity Filters

Those of us who live with animals are often accused of anthropomorphizing them, which is to say attributing human characteristics to them and explaining their behaviors in human terms. I know I do it. I've even developed a habit of speaking for our dog Stella, giving her a distinct voice that is hers and hers alone, one that my wife and daughter have adopted as well whenever speaking on her behalf. She calls me "The Guy" and often informs me, "I'm being very good right now. It's time for a treat." Once the three of us humans had a sincere disagreement about exactly what she had "said" earlier in the day before realizing how ridiculous we were being.

So yes, we anthropomorphize her. Specifically, we are applying a human-centric bias to her inner life which is largely incomprehensible to us, if only because her sensory world is so much different than ours. 

Her sense of smell alone is something we simply cannot comprehend and makes for her a world that we will never understand. We recently walked her into the Grand Central Terminal Market, a pungent hall full of food, produce, and spice vendors located in the famous Grand Central Station in New York City. The moment we stepped through the door, she dropped to a sitting position, refusing to budge. My initial response was to assume that she had been frightened by the crowds or the sounds or something, but upon reflection, I'm convinced that she experienced a moment of olfactory blindness, the way we might be visually blinded by a flash of light. Of course, I'll never know for certain. All I can say for sure is that she overcame the urge to sit, then proceeded to meticulously sniff every nook and cranny of the place. She then took me back there every morning for the rest of our stay in the city.

In his bestseller An Immense World, science writer Ed Yong quotes zoologist Donald Griffen, a man who co-discovered the sonar of bats, as saying that biologists are often "overly swayed by 'simplicity filters.' That is, they seemed reluctant to even consider that the senses they were studying might be more complex and refined than whatever data they had collected could suggest."

"This lament," writes Yong, "contradicts Occam's razor, the principle that states that the simple explanation is usually the best. But, this principle is only true if you have all the necessary information at hand. And Griffin's point was that you might not. A scientist's explanations about other animals are dictated by the data she collects, which are influenced by the questions she asks, which are steered by her imagination, which is delimited by her senses. The boundaries of the human Umwelt often make the Umwelten of others opaque to us." 

In this case Yong is using the German word Umwelt (environment) in the way biologists have come to use it, which is to say that each of us organisms are forever contained within a bubble of our perceptions as dictated by the nature of our senses. This makes it really, really hard to ever understand how other organisms experience the world. For instance, even if we understand that other species see their world in terms of echolocation or scent, we can never really know what that means. Indeed, I just used the word "see" to describe senses are are not, in any way, visual because that is what, as a human, I know best.

Young children are not, of course, another species, but I would assert that we adults are often guilty of applying simplification filters to young children. In the process we adult-ify them, which blinds us to what is really going on. 

A teacher recently complained to me about a young, pre-verbal, child who tended to throw things around the classroom, often hurting his classmates. The worst part, according to this teacher, was that he "smiles while he does it," as if he didn't care that he was hurting others, or worse, was taking pleasure in their pain. Of course, it's possible that she's spot on, that this child was actually delighting in the pain he caused. I mean, that would be my leading theory if this were an adult smiling while beaning people with blocks and toy cars. I might even speculate about mental illness. But in the case of a child, it's more likely that I just don't have all the necessary information.

After observing and interacting with the boy for a bit, witnessing the hazardous throwing, even being beaned myself, I began to believe it was far more likely that this behavior was a joyful, if misguided, attempt to connect with other people. He would look me right in the eye, smile, then heave an object in my direction. If I proactively held out my hands as if asking for the object, however, he would (sometimes) place it in my hands instead of throwing it. My observations and experiments, combined with my knowledge that throwing is an important developmental stage that tends to emerge around 12-14 months, and an understanding that give-and-take games are often an early form of playing with another person, led me to an entirely different theory about his throwing behavior than the one I would apply to an adult. I still might be totally wrong because no matter what I do I'm trapped within the bubble of my perceptions, but by adding complexity to my thinking, by removing those simplicity filters through gathering more information, by trying to step outside of my Umwelt, I believe that I've come closer to genuine understanding.

After keeping them safe and fed, I believe that this is our primary role as important adults in the lives of  young children: understanding. And that means struggling against the confines of our own Umwelten, to observe, to increase our store of information, to theorize and then to test our theories. If my theory about this boy is correct, then the throwing is the result of his unique development rather than some indicator that he his growing into some sort of non-empathetic, or even psychopathic, adult. Instead of working to change the boy, perhaps the best thing is to change the environment by replace the hard objects in the room with soft ones. Then when he tries to joyfully connect with the other people through throwing, the objects just bounce off without causing harm. And since this is a developmental phase it will pass as he learns more skills, then we can return the hard objects to the room.

This may not be what happens, because again, we can never have full awareness of what's going on inside of another being, but it's through observation and this kind of trial and error science, that we gather the necessary information we need to overcome the limitations of our own Umwelten. This is the primary job of an early childhood educator.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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