Monday, July 11, 2005

Kids and Consciousness

There's a great story in last week's New Yorker titled "Death of a Fish" by Adam Gopnik about his kids reaction to the death of their betta "bluie".

Its main threads were:

How should we (the parents) respond to the death of a pet? Fabrication? Honesty? Behind-the-scenes replacement?

And, how do kids brains construct consciousness.

The fish had gotten stuck in its own decorative castle and couldn't get out on its own:

I watched Bluie wriggling in his window, staring out, stuck. I felt for him, another victim of grndiose Manhattan real estate, undone by his own apartment. It was one of those moments, of which parenting is full, where you scream inside "I do not know what to do about this!" while the parent you are impersonating says calmly, "I'll fix it."

The ten year old's reaction to the problem was, as the author described, what philosophers call the "problem of consciousness":

"Does Bluie know he's Bluie?" he would ask, when we watched the fish swimming in his bowl in Olivia's room. "I mean, I know he doesn't think, Oh, I'm Bluie! But what DOES he think--does he know he's HIM swimmin around? Or is he just like a potato or something, only with fins, who swims but doesn't think anything?" What does it feel like, he wanted to konw, to be a fish, a hamster, a monkey, a chimp? What does it feel like to be someone else?

The five year old, however, was in a different space in understancing consciousness:

. . . a pair of Japanese psychologists, Hatano and Inagaki, had done studies of how children develop intuitive theories of biology by havin pets. . . "They claim that all kids, Western and Eastern, go from havin primarily just psychology and physics to havin a 'vitalist' biology right around age six," [his sister told the author]. "That is, they start to think there is some vital spirit-you know, kind of like Chinese Chi-that keeps animals and humans alive, gets replenished by food, damaged by illness, and so on. And here's the cool thing. Hatano and Inagaki show, experimentally, that giving kids pet fish accelerates the development of this kind of vitalism. We give them fish as a learning device, though we don't know that when we do it. [The five year old] is probably in transition from a psycholoical conception of life to a bioloical one, which may be why she's so bewildered."

It seemed that the mere presence of a fish in a bowl, despite the barriers of glass and water and the fact of the fish's mindlessness, acted as a kind of empathy pump for five-year-olds, getting into the corners of their minds. [The five year old] was a vitalist, and Bluie was no longer vital. Accordin to my sister, childrens education proceedsin stages. At three, they're mostly psychologists, searching for a theory of mind; at six, they're bioloists, searching for a theory of life. At ten, they're philosophers, searching to understand why our minds cannot make our lives go on forever.

Maybe our story that the baby is in a waterbaloon in BioMom's belly is not the catalyst for vitalism for the FYO that we're looking for.

Maybe the better metaphor would be a fishbowl.

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