The Family Mind Machine


I’m feeling a bit abstract. This last week I’ve been wondering ‘If my family shared one mind, how would it work?’

Some Important Features of a Family Mind

My family mind would contain two grown up minds, an almost four year old mind, a 20 month old mind, and soon, a primitive little newborn mind. According to Alison Gopnik, author of ‘The Philosophical Baby’ (2009), these minds function very differently. I’ll list the differences between my husband and I, and our kids at the ages we are now. If I were talking about older children there would be a lot less difference because many of the features of what I am calling the ‘parent’ minds start to be acquired while children are primary school age. I am only comparing differences across our particular family as we are right now, so this is a snapshot in an evolving state of affairs.

Parent Minds Vs Young Child Minds

1. Autobiographical Memory

Adults remember things that happened to them in the past, and can link them both to the present they find themselves in, and their imagined future. They know that these experiences are ‘theirs’, different to general knowledge, and are able to understand them as ‘my life story’. So parent aminds have an ‘inner autobiographer’ who catalogues their memories.

Before age five, children have not started to order events in this way. My almost 4 year old daughter knows that she went to theatre on the bus in the past, and that one day it will be her fourth birthday. She remembers specific events and knows about some upcoming ones, but these are lumped together in heaps rather than arranged chronologically. It is like she has a big box of past memories marked ‘yesterday’ and one marked ‘tomorrow’ with her expectations and hopes for the future. However, she does understand that the memory of the theatre is hers, as her forthcoming birthday is hers, and she relishes the opportunity to tell people about them.

As for her younger siblings, they are able to learn from past experience, and use it to guide plans in the immediate future, but the ability to think of this experience as something that happened to ‘me’ has not yet developed. My son has a specific memory of how much he enjoyed the Wiggles DVD when he watched it. He knows he wants to see it again at the nearest opportunity. This is part of the general way of things for everyone as far as he is concerned. Newborn baby knows simply that when she cries she will get attended to, but has no idea where that knowledge came from.

2. Executive Control

Adults have the ability to suppress what they want now in order to get what they want in the future. This is different to making plans to get what they want in the present moment, because it means that sometimes they have to care about a future, imagined, self, more than their present self: I will submit to a thorough and uncomfortable dental cleaning today, so that my future self will not get diseased gums. As well as the inner autobiographer, there is an ‘inner executive’ who is in charge of planning present action and calculating future benefit. In the parent mind, this inner executive is responsible for telling you to do all those things you would rather put off in favour of a nice cup of tea and a sit down, like getting on with the bedtime routine, or stopping the toddler from inserting a ham sandwich into the DVD player.

The ‘pain now/pleasure later’ logic is largely pointless as far as our children are concerned. However, if there is much gratification to be had, and a short period of delay, our eldest child shows she is starting to understand this control.

While my husband and I may not feel like piling the kids into the car and driving to the beach on a Sunday afternoon, we know it will be nice when we get there, and the children will spend many hours happily playing in the sand. My eldest daughter may not want to get in the car, but after being reminded that soon she could be digging a Big Enormous Hole, she will leap willingly into her seat. My son will not care a jot for his future gratification if he is not in the mood for travel and will try to self eject from his padded seat, yelling in frustration. A newborn will be happy as long as needs for food and comfort have been met. Engine noises are comforting and car seats are comfy. What’s not to like?

3. Stream of Consciousness

While adults are swept along in a river of constant thought, young children paddle in a series of rock pools, each with a distinct point of interest. This is partly due to the absence of an inner autobiographer and inner executive, and partly to do with language: young children’s minds are not transported back and forth to experienced past and imagined future and neither do they have the inner voices which accompany this process. The parent minds, on the other hand, are chock full of language, so much so that they are often swept up in listening to the various voices in their head, rather than paying attention to their present environment. This means they may miss the rock pools their children inhabit altogether, but does help with activities such as making plans for the weekend or knowing whether the baby bag is sufficiently full of nappies, clothes changes, snacks etc.

Gopnik describes various pieces of research into when children begin to experience conscious thought. The answers indicate that our 4 year old would be aware of herself thinking when engaged in an activity or particularly absorbing bit of contemplation, but would not consider her thinking ‘switched on’ all the time like an older child. She will sit in the car deep in thought and announce ‘I’ve got a good idea! Let’s make a rocket/cookies/ theatre! ‘ so she has an awareness of her own thinking and of individual thoughts. With little language at younger children’s disposal, it is unlikely that they have conscious, separable, thoughts like big sister. For instance, our son will pick up the phone, put it to his ear, and say ‘hello’ which shows a thought process of making connections between objects and actions. A newborn will learn to smile through reflex, and then repeat the action because it yields such interesting results in those around her. In both cases, there is thinking, but no sign of awareness of thought. This mental set up allows the children to be present in their environment and to seize maximum opportunities to learn from it, without being bothered by a voice pointing out connections between this and other moments, or suggesting they consider a career in accountancy.

These differences between parent and child minds are down to what we use our minds for overall. The children are learning so fast that, every few months, they completely change their understanding of the world. This means they have little use for mental systems which encourage them to hold onto past beliefs, or imagine futures, as the inner autobiographer and executive do. Grown ups and older children develop more fixed patterns of belief and a greater sense of self, which allow them to plan for their own survival and satisfaction in the world, first in near future, and then in the long term. Their future success and happiness may depend on paying attention to their inner autobiographer and executives. Though understandings of the world may change, such shifts in belief occur far less frequently than in infants.

Though this is still a somewhat limited sketch of what parent and child minds do, it gives me something to build my family mind machine on. Here goes…

How Our Family Mind Might Look

Picture a Heath Robinson style contraption with alarm clocks and weird paraphernalia attached to it, whirring and clanking away. The family mind would be a number of different, yet connected, machines which serve different functions:

1. A Memory Library

This could be a tree- like construction which acted as an archive. The branches would house chronologically organised memories which make up The Family History. Here, the life stories of family members would be kept track of through complex notations, and for the most part these would be maintained by the parents. Leaves and flowers could bloom at intervals from the main tree representing the memory of specific events, like the colour, shape, and flavour of the birthday cake we baked. The two older kids and parents tend to these together, adding more as life progresses. Eventually, the newborn’s memory would develop enough and she would join in.

2. The Storage Area

The storage area would have two main sections: one for short term use and the other for the long term.

There would be a long term filing cabinet for beliefs which experience has reinforced many, many times. The certainty that day follows night, or that teeth should be brushed before bed. Even the newborn would start to build up awareness of patterns like these on a rudimentary level, starting by distinguishing a difference between night and day. The parents would keep more of their beliefs in the long term filing system than the children, because they have beliefs which are more static, less prone to change. So, imagine some big, robust filing cabinets operated by hands on springy extendable arms flitting between them storing and retrieving information relating to different concepts, which are cross-referenced with one another.

Imagine that linked to this long term filing machine is a short term belief drop which acts as a filter system for new ideas. Let’s say there is a small canal, with a stream of new ideas arriving on paper boats. Each boat holds a different belief, and they float into a temporary holding pool. Every time supporting evidence is found in the outside world for a belief, or a good link is recognised between it and those already in long term storage, the boat gets heavier. When this happens, the boat sinks down to the bottom of the pool into an underwater processing station. Here, the beliefs are available for short term use. If the beliefs are of long term significance, the mechanical hands can remove items them to the long term filing system. The boats that fail to gather weight float away downstream and are disposed of, as are short term ones which are of no further use. The toddler and 4 yr old make particular use of this machine, though the others in the family also drop beliefs into the boats.

3. The Learning Centre

The storage area is fed by the Learning Centre. This is a roaming robot device which is fitted to obtain information via sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and emotion. There would be fingers, cameras, tongue and nostril like sensors, and probably some lasers too. Why not. The purpose of all these gadgets would be to gather new ideas, new information which are worthy of at least short term consideration. This would be used to update the short term belief drop and long term filing system.

Though the parents make frequent use of the learning centre, the kids all make intensive use of it. This is where they are in their milieu, learning with great efficiency. With their greater understanding of language the parent- operated part of the learning centre would be more concerned with detailed linguistic input, while the kid- operated part would deal more with non- linguistic concepts. However, as they develop their own language use they would rely less on the parent minds to fathom this kind of information for them.

4. The Control Centre

This would be a command pod where you’d find lots of cables, screens, levers and buttons that help the different parts of the mind machine to communicate with one another. There would be a lot of clocks and timers and clipboards keeping everyone on schedule. A crystal ball would be used to gaze at the hypothetical future. Plans would be calculated using input from the other parts of the machine and combining them with these future visions. A steering mechanism would be used to instruct the family in fulfilling these plans.

Some of the activity organised by the control centre would be the province of the parents at first, but be ceded to the children as they become capable of performing them. For instance, the parent would control access to food at first, but as the child learns to self feed this physical activity would fall to them, though the time it occurred might be parent- controlled. This might be part of a larger parent planned activity involving shopping for, cooking, and consuming food. An older child might have more input into these parts of the process, than a toddler.

As the learning centre would be a child dominated mechanism, the control centre would be more the domain of the parents. Though the children might contribute to calculating plans and sending instructions, they would not be able to fully work the clocks or the crystal ball, and they would not have all the access codes to the memory library or storage areas. Therefore, to operate in everyone’s interests, a major function of the control centre is to move the mind machine to locations where the learning centre can be fed, as well as maintaining the various functions of the machine overall.

Benefits and Drawbacks

Drafting out this bonkers family mind machine has been interesting for me, because it really made me think about what my kids are capable of, what they need from me, and how this should affect the roles we play in our family unit.

For example: I had been feeling a bit frustrated because my daughter has been toilet learning for a couple of years now, and she still goes through stages of being accident prone. I do try to keep upbeat and unflustered by accidents, and to accept that this is an ongoing process, yadayada. However, sometimes I think ‘Come on! You know how to avoid this!’. I realise now that the issue is that my little girl cannot put her future self ahead of her present self, so if she is playing an absorbing game she will ignore her urge to wee, even though she knows what will happen. She does like being a ‘big girl’ like her older friends, so she does try most of the time now. This means it is my role to exert some executive planning and remind her to wee at these moments, and praise her for her progress when she remembers the rest of the time. As she learns greater executive control, she will take this role on herself. It sounds very obvious now, but for me, clarity came from writing this.

There is plenty left out of this mind model, that should by rights be there. Imagination and Emotional Intelligence are but two very important areas of a family mind, which I haven’t touched on at this point. Perhaps there will be an update to this effect later on. Enough mad scientisting for now though. Time to listen to my inner executive and get on with making lunch.

I would highly recommend Gopnik’s book to anyone interested in this sort of thing. Follow the link for more info on The Philosophical Baby.

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