I Am. Therefore, I Think

Christopher Thurber, PhD
July 2003

"Pooh," said Rabbit kindly, "you haven't any brain." "I know," said Pooh humbly.
— from The House at Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne

Big Questions

About 300 years before Winnie-the-Pooh’s impossible reply to Rabbit, French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes sat in his study in Holland and pondered the truth. He thought about dreams, consciousness, and his five senses. Suddenly he realized there was one, undeniable and absolute truth about the universe — if he was thinking, he must exist. For Descartes, knowing our own mental states proves our existence. Or, as he put it, “I think, therefore I am.”

Pooh’s statement is silly, of course, because the mere fact that he heard, understood, and answered Rabbit proved that he had a brain. The contradiction between Pooh’s statement and reality is what makes this passage — and so much of Milne’s work — brilliant and funny. (The fact that stuffed animals are talking makes it that much funnier.)

If thinking proves our existence, then perhaps no question is more significant than: How do humans develop this ability? For some answers, we turn to four studies on our list of the twenty most revolutionary studies in child development.

From Clams to Kids

Swiss biologist Jean Piaget wrote his doctoral thesis on the classification of mollusks. How he went from that point to becoming the world’s preeminent child psychologist is nothing short of incredible. After completing his Ph.D., he studied psychoanalysis at the University of Zurich and then landed a job in Paris standardizing intelligence tests for psychologist Alfred Binet. (Binet was an inventor of I.Q. tests.) Piaget found most of this work dull, but he was fascinated by children’s incorrect answers to test questions.

Unlike Binet, Piaget came to believe that the key to understanding children’s cognitive development was not which questions children got wrong, but how they got them wrong. Piaget realized that the way children think was not simply a lesser version of adult thinking. It was qualitatively different. When he died in 1980, at the age of eighty-four, Piaget had written more than ninety books and five hundred articles on these differences.

Baby Biographer

All of Piaget’s work was revolutionary because it transformed our thinking about cognitive development. One of his books — The Origins of Intelligence in Children — stands out as particularly influential. First published in 1936, it was most widely appreciated after 1952, when it was translated to English. The book contains exceptionally detailed observations of his three children — Jacqueline, Lucienne, and Laurent — from birth to about age two. Each set of observations is followed by Piaget’s theoretical explanation for different behaviors. For example, Piaget writes:

“Observation 113 — Jacqueline, (at 8 months; 16 days), looks at me while my lips imitate the mewing of a cat. She holds a little bell suspended from the hood of her bassinet . . . . In order to make me continue, she shakes the little bell she holds. I answer by meowing. As soon as I stop, she again shakes the little bell, and so forth. After a few moments I definitely stop my meowings. She shakes the bell two or three times more and, confronted by failure, she changes means.” (p. 203)

Piaget explains little Jacqueline’s behavior like this: From birth to about two years, children are in the “sensorimotor stage” of cognitive development. They understand the world through sensory and motor interactions with their environment. Many motor skills, such as reaching and grasping, are genetically programmed. With experience, children associate certain movements with certain outcomes. Jacqueline associated her ringing the bell with her father’s meowing. She then adapted her behavior based on the effect it had on the environment. So long as her ringing the bell had the intended outcome, she continued. When the desired effect disappeared, she eventually stopped ringing the bell. The ability to make this kind of adaptation, said Piaget, is what intelligence is.

According to Piaget, intelligence grows as we add to and revise our ideas of how the world works. He called these dual processes “assimilation” and “accommodation.” Each time that Jacqueline rings the bell and her father meows, she is assimilating. She’s adding familiar information to an organized idea about how the world works. When her father stops meowing, this new information requires her to revise her idea about whether her ringing the bell always results in her father’s meowing. She is accommodating.

Every day, we assimilate familiar information into our organized ideas about the world, and we accommodate fresh information by revising old ideas or creating new ones. Again, Piaget’s work was revolutionary because he showed how children’s organized ideas — or “schemas” — about how the world works were different from adults’ ideas.

For example, compare your schema for objects to Jacqueline’s schema for objects. Your schema includes mental representations. You understand that an object continues to exist even when you cannot see it. If you saw me put your issue of Camping Magazine under a blanket, you would know it still exists. You could picture it in your mind and you would naturally look for it under that blanket. Jacqueline probably would not. So, if her father hid her favorite toy under a blanket, she might look momentarily miffed, but she would not search for the toy. For a child that age, the toy isn’t hidden. It’s gone. Yet over time, said Piaget, Jacqueline’s biological growth and experiences with the world would allow her to hold mental representations of objects in her mind, use deductive reasoning, see the world from another person’s perspective, and think abstractly.

Kids These Days

Piaget’s work has spawned thousands of studies, many concerned with validating the observations he made of his three children. Most of these studies support Piaget’s basic theory, but others suggest cognitive development is smoother and less “step-like” than Piaget proposed. Some studies — such as the revolutionary work published by Renée Baillargeon in 1987 — suggest that children are capable of certain cognitive tasks at an earlier age than Piaget claimed.

Recall that Piaget claimed children younger than nine months do not understand that objects out of sight continue to exist. In Piagetian terms, young infants do not have a sense of “object permanence.” However, Baillargeon’s clever test of object permanence proved that infants as young as three and a half months have a sense of object permanence.

First Baillargeon showed infants a piece of cardboard the size of a paperback book. The cardboard was hinged to the table on one side so that it could flap forward toward the infant, and then all the way back, away from the infant. The infants were allowed to see the cardboard flap back and forth, through its full 180-degree arc. Then, Baillargeon placed a colorful Mr. Potato Head toy behind the hinge and showed the infants two events — one possible and one impossible.

In the possible condition, the cardboard flap swung up, blocked the toy from the infant’s view, and then stopped at a 112-degree angle, presumably because it had hit the toy. In the impossible condition, the cardboard flap swung up, occluded the toy, and then kept going through its full 180-degree arc. (The toy had disappeared under a little trap door, allowing the cardboard flap to keep going.) Remarkably, infants gazed longer at the impossible event than at the possible event, which Baillargeon and others have interpreted to mean one thing: three-and-a-half-month-old infants had some basic understanding that the toy, even though out of sight, still existed. It therefore should have stopped the cardboard flap from swinging all the way back.

And you thought Mr. Potato Head was just a toy!

A Revolutionary Revolutionary

Born in 1896 — the same year as Piaget — Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky earned a law degree from Moscow University in 1917, during that country’s bloody revolution. In 1925, he earned a doctorate in psychology and, until his death from tuberculosis in 1934, he wrote many influential essays on cognitive development. Like Piaget, he believed intelligence was a process of adaptation. Unlike other animals, he said, humans have the capacity to alter the environment for their own purposes.

The book Mind in Society is an anthology of Vygotsky’s best work. It contains some manuscripts that he published in the early 1930s, and some that were discovered and translated posthumously. There are interesting Marxist influences in Vygotsky’s writing, especially when he talks about how people’s work shapes their environment or how children’s “mastery in the use of tools” is a key to their intellectual development. Vygotsky also admired the way Marx analyzed economic and social change by looking at essential components, such as “value” and “capital.” Vygotsky was not a political revolutionary, but he revolutionized psychological thought by challenging people to think about what the essential components of cognitive development were.

Get in the Zone

For Vygotsky, two key tools for a child’s adaptive learning were social contact and language. He wrote,
“Signs and words serve children first and foremost as a means of social contact with other people. The cognitive and communicative functions of language then become the basis of a new and superior form of activity in children, distinguishing them from animals.” (p. 28-29)

Vygotsky noticed that children used language to express themselves, but also to direct their own behavior and solicit help from others. The mere fact that a child asked a question about a problem (“Can you reach those cookies for me?”) suggested to Vygotsky that the child had “formulated a plan to solve the task . . . but [was] unable to perform all the necessary operations.”

But it was not simply socializing and talking that fertilized children’s intellect, it was being in what Vygotsky called the “zone of proximal development.” Like Piaget, Vygotsky was not intrigued by children’s intellectual level, as measured by an intelligence test. But unlike Piaget — who focused on how children made mistakes — Vygotsky focused on what children could accomplish with the assistance of another person. That was the zone of proximal development.

As Vygotsky put it: “ . . . the zone of proximal development . . . is the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.” (p. 86) The key to hearty intellectual growth, argued Vygotsky, was for children to be supported in this zone. That way, learning could actually shape development.

So, You Think You’re Special?

Even before Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, scientists and philosophers had sought to distinguish that which was uniquely human from that which we had in common with animals. Piaget and Vygotsky were no exception. They both used the phrase “uniquely human” to describe certain cognitive abilities, such as language fluency and representational thought. And so in 1978, when University of Pennsylvania psychologists David Premack and Guy Woodruff described their experiments with a chimpanzee named Sarah, their results were met with a great deal of controversy.

Premack and Woodruff had trained and tested fourteen-year-old Sarah since she arrived at the Penn primate facility when she was less than a year old. She had even learned a simplified visual language and could sign for things she wanted, such as a banana or a hug. Now the researchers were interested to know whether Sarah had a “theory of mind” — whether she could infer what others were thinking. Most animals can respond to another animal’s behavior, but perhaps only humans understand that other members of our species have thoughts.

For example, when Ana says, “Byron believes in ghosts, but I don’t,” we infer that Ana has a theory of mind. She has imputed a mental state to Byron and distinguished it from her own. Is this ability uniquely human?

To answer that question, Premack and Woodruff showed Sarah eight different video vignettes depicting a human being in a jam. In one vignette, for example, the human actor struggled to get out of a cage. Sarah was then shown four still photographs depicting possible solutions: a key, a match, a spigot and hose, and a cord plugged to an outlet. Premack and Woodruff reasoned that Sarah had to understand the human’s intentions and beliefs (mental states) in order to select the right solution (the key).

For each of the eight vignettes, Sarah pointed most often to the photograph that depicted the correct solution. Premack and Woodruff argued that Sarah understood the human actor’s purpose in each of the vignettes, thus supporting the notion that chimpanzees have a theory of mind. Some twenty-five years later, lively debate — and much research — is still directed at this question.

What to Pack for Camp

The authors discussed in this article have revolutionized child psychology by suggesting:

  1. children do not think less than adults, they think differently from adults;
  2. physical and sensory exploration boost cognitive development;
  3. intelligence is an adaptive process whereby children constantly append and reorganize their ideas about the world;
  4. cognitive development is promoted, and perhaps best measured, by what children can accomplish with the assistance of a more capable teacher;
  5. the foundations for abstract thinking are present at a very young age; and
  6. nonhuman primates may also have the ability to think about thinking.

How can you use these findings at camp?

  • Pay special attention to how campers make mistakes — both in activities and in relationships — because it reveals how they think. Knowing this will help you be a better teacher.
  • Provide opportunities for challenge and exploration. Most cognitive growth occurs when campers are faced with new, somewhat difficult circumstances.
  • Encourage effort without putting a premium on winning or perfection. Help campers understand that the process of learning involves more failing than succeeding. Teach staff to value the process, not the product.
  • Be sensitive to younger camper’s concrete ways of thinking. It takes years to learn to think hypothetically and abstractly. This is one reason why younger children are impulsive and why they take what adults say so literally.
  • Teach age-appropriate skills. Although it may be trendy to create precocity, Piaget cautioned, “Children have real understanding only of that which they invent themselves, and each time that we try to teach them something too quickly, we keep them from reinventing it themselves.”
  • Allow campers to be self-directed in some activities. Like many animals, children can be trained to perform. A nobler goal is to teach them to think for themselves and act responsibly. Some self-directed play helps nurture children’s independence.
  • Pair challenge with support. Push campers’ skill limits while exposing them to expert instructors and peers. This practice promotes development by keeping children in the zone of proximal development.
  • Design an environment where campers experience some mastery, not just constant challenge or constant hollow praise. A genuine sense of accomplishment, after some real effort and failure, is the only thing that increases self-esteem. There is no evidence to suggest that simply telling a child she is special will make her feel special.
  • Appreciate each camper’s potential, not just his or her existing skills. A true measure of your camp’s success is how well each child’s potential is tapped during the session, not how much the campers’ existing skills are showcased.
  • Explain the goals of activities to campers in advance. Then, at the end of some activities, discuss whether and how those goals were met. Play is your most powerful teaching tool.

If Piaget, Vygotsky, Baillargeon, Premack, and Woodruff were to design an ideal learning environment, it would need to have developmentally appropriate and challenging activities, nurturing experts, plenty of social interaction, and opportunities for both problem-solving and thoughtful reflection. Of course, it would also need to be fun, or no one would go.

I think I know just what that ideal place is.

Baillargeon, R. (1987). Object permanence in 3½- and 4½-month-old infants. Developmental Psychology, 23, 655-664.
Piaget, J. (1936/1952). The Origins of Intelligence in Children. New York: International Universities Press.
Premack, D. & Woodruff, G. (1978). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 4, 515-526.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Christopher A. Thurber, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist who divides his time among Phillips Exeter Academy, corporate and camp consultation, and co-parenting his infant son, Danilo. He is the co-author of the Summer Camp Handbook. For information about staff training at your camp, send e-mail to: chris@campspirit.com