Thursday, January 25, 2007

Why Children Aren't Philosophers

"...those who have most of this comprehension, and who are more steadfast in their learning, and in their military and other appointed duties, when they have arrived at the age of thirty have to be chosen by you out of the select class, and elevated to higher honour..." - Plato, The Republic

If Plato had his way, philosophy and youth wouldn't mix. He may have had a point. Children don't have the capacity for self-reflection as adults, although it's easy to forget this when they may be smart or clever in other ways. Developmentally, young children really struggle with perspective-taking, and their perceptions of themselves may often be more simplistic than we realize.

From the self-knowledge paper, below:"...(young children) tend to rely on global, evaluative inferences (e.g. "good," "bad") rather than traits to predict others' behavior until between seven and ten years of age." Before "children are seven or eight years old, they are likely to endorse only positive or only negative attributes about themselves." Think of the implications of school failure for these kids! Maybe that is why we have seen many heart-rending episodes of self-loathing and existential angst among kindergarteners or first graders (often triggered by reading or handwriting problems).

The figure below shows the differences in brain activation when groups of children or adults were asked to reflect on personal traits like popularity or academic abilities like reading or writing. Compared to adult pattern, the kids' scans showed much more diffuse distributions of activation by fMRI. Interestingly, the children's scans showed more lower / visual pathway activation, perhaps due to triggering of personal visual recall or imagery. What were they seeing? Imagery in this circumstance might be more constricting than a non-imagery-based concept of self. With a more grownup self-percept, we may have more complex memories, associations, and labels.

We're headed for a long weekend. Be back blogging on Monday, Jan 29th!

Children's Self-Knowledge and fMRI
ENL Blog: The Self-Examined Life

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