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Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Child and the Meme

+Tim Tyler's  insightful cover of his book Memetics: Memes and the Science of Cultural Evolution is an invaluable commentary on childhood development.  It is a close-up of a crying baby's face as light bulbs with wire tails encircle the head trying to get in, reminiscent of an ovum being fertilized by sperm.  It also illustrates that memes are replicators just like genes.  It is brilliant!

We often idealize childhood:  Life was so much simpler then. Or was it?  How quickly we forget.  Just as a baby begins to explore the world and experiences rapid physical growth, its brain goes into high gear with language acquisition and reproduction.  But it must work hard to produce the right sounds as it learns to control breath, vocal pitch, lips, cheeks and tongue and also contends with the eruption of teeth! Pleasure from linguistic interaction and playful enthusiasm aid in this daunting task. [1]

As the child grows  it develops a near obsession around age three for repetitive tasks and verbal rhythms.  Abstract words are still tied to observed realities and will remain this way for a while.  We also see an uncanny ability to pick up on the context of a word and use it, even when the meaning is unknown.  When a child hears someone curse and then repeats the word and sees the novel reactions of adults, the child repeats the experiment and revels in the reaction.  This word must be important for the brain to retain if it evokes such a strong response!  The adult, conscious of the social fallout reacts as their social memeplex demands.  The child, driven more by biology than by memeplex programs, persists.  This is why social awareness of childhood development & language acquisition is crucial.  If left to compulsively carry out the "parental role" of current social memeplexes, the adult often responds to the child in ways that are counter-productive to their goal and a vicious cycle of reaction-response-reaction ensues.

The brain doesn't simply wait for linguistic interaction to occur.  It plays internally with the language, runs simulations of conversations, day-dreams.  This is as important to development as social interaction.  The brain acquires memes and assembles memeplexes.  Through peer group interaction and interaction with adults the child learns if the internal memeplex aligns with the collective, shared memeplex.  Then it works to refine the internal memeplex.  A child who's memeplex aligns completely with the prevailing memeplex is often labeled the "good kid" (or alternatively, "the suck-up"); a child who maintains some independence in their memeplex is often labeled "creative".  The one who strays too far is labeled "troubled".  In reality, all dispositions ("good";"creative";"troubled") can create problems or be an asset. 

Let's look at the label "troubled" since it gets a lot of play.  A teacher can get frustrated with the personality and behavior, label the student, give them poor marks, encourage the parents to apply pressure and behavior modification and advocate for the use of drugs.  Alternatively, a teacher can observe a "troubled" student and wonder, "How is the structure of my classroom hostile to this child?"  The "troubled" student can be a barometer, sensitive to structural pressures while the teacher and other students remain unaware.  This child may also be communicating that they are contending with more memetic interactions than their peers (they may belong to a memetic minority even though they dress, speak and are the same color and social class as other students).  It is the teacher's responsibility, as the educated adult capable of reflection and adaptation, to address the deeper picture instead of assigning labels, and to turn the experience into one of mutual growth. 

Language acquisition is stressful.  Memeplex conformity (disciplined thinking) takes years to learn (and unlearn).  We often face contradictions between received memeplexes and personal experience.

We experience misunderstandings & conflict with peers as we experiment with language and transmit ideas.  We run into linguistic sub-cultures which challenge the ways we think.  We often experience challenges with authority figures who have the power to reward, punish and label.  And when we just about sort it out...along comes puberty. 

The most important thing for any parent, educator or decent adult to remember is that brain development is different from their observations and perceptions.  Evaluation has limits and biases.  Often teachers will view development as stunted when what they are observing is only the expression, the ability to communicate proficiently.  Effective communication includes awareness and assent to norms as well as an established scaffold of trust.  Traditional evaluations take the social complexity of learning and all its challenges away, attributing shortcomings to the individual student when it is often the institutional structure, methodology, praxis and student-teacher relationship which need to be critiqued.

Continue to Child 'Abuse'

[1] Here is the beauty of intention-less design.  Language acquisition applied selective pressure on our species, in parental bonding and in mate bonding.   Babies who did not experience pleasure (a biological incentive) from linguistic interaction had less success in bonding with caregivers, and lower survival rate.  Adults who were not linguistically proficient or who lacked a desire for linguistic interaction were less successful in passing on their genes.  From the beginning memes had a symbiotic relationship with the genes. 

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