26 July, 2007

A one year-old's research program

I recently realized that my daughter has an urge as miraculous as it is maddening: she takes things apart. I don't remember when she first manifested this behavior, but she liked to reach into my shirt pocket, grab a pen, and remove the cap before she left for Russia, thus before she was a year old.

How does she know that she can do that? She's been ripping my wife's catalogs to shreds for months now, but taking the cap off a pen is a completely different project. A closed pen is one object, but she intuits that there is a division, and that the division can lead to separation, if she only applies her hands using the correct technique.

By now, of course, she has been working on taking apart more than pens, including a number of things that she can't take apart. Fortunate, that, since anything she does take apart makes a quick visit to her mouth, and taking the cap off a bottle of shampoo could have dire consequences.

Perhaps this urge isn't so miraculous. After all, she does watch her parents keenly, and her parents take things apart all the time. I happen to remove pen caps a lot. Good point! Perhaps the original action was, in fact, a way to imitate her father. But she takes apart things that she has never seen us do, such as a box of markers that sat neglected from our son's childhood. So at some point her mind must engage in a level of abstraction where she tries to repeat on certain objects actions that she has performed on other objects, and then develops on her own new actions that are based on the ones she learned.

Here's a different example. After the storm two or three weeks back, someone once gave her a stick while she was enjoying a stroll. While trying to figure the stick out, she held it in such a way that it dragged across the ground. This made a sound and vibration that her ears and hand found immensely pleasing. Now she insists that we give her something every time we take a stroll. Whatever she receives, she holds it to the ground to see if it will make the noice and produce the vibration that she finds so fascinating.

Maybe I'm just a new father in the flush of new fatherhood, but this does not strike me as trivial. A one year-old's research program consists of taking things apart and rubbing things on the ground. Fortunately, her summer research has provided her with far more results than mine.

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