Infant Mind | May 1997

FMBR Editorial: May, 1997

Infant Mind

Marshall Pease

As I contemplate the nature and power of the human mind (and to a lesser extent, that of animals), I grow more and more impressed. Thinking about the mind's development from that of the infant before or soon after birth, it is an incredible journey. The strict reductionists of modern biological science claim this journey begins with some genetically determined "wired in" capabilities in the brain's neurological structure. From there they say the brain develops by responding adaptively to its sensory environment. Others, of whom I am one, doubt such a mechanistic view can be the whole story. The adaptive part seems right, but the starting point is puzzling.

What particularly interest me are what I call "archetypal substrata" which I believe are the beginning state. I will not here argue if this state is genetically determined or derived from some other source. Regardless, they are archetypes in the sense of being tools our minds use not normally accessible to conscious thought. They are substrata underlying the higher archetypes which, in Jungian terms, are the tools of conscious thought and life.

As an example of a substratum, consider how we receive and give meaning to our sensory inputs. They are transmitted to the brain through a vast number of nerve fibers, each carrying a single datum. The brain is immersed in a veritable flood of data that must appear entirely chaotic to the infant before any special level cognitive capabilities have developed. Yet the infant very quickly learns to make at least some sense of this chaos. Initially he presumably sees only what is before his eyes. Yet in achieving even this level of perception he has learned to deal not with the raw data, but with images perceivable only after much integration. For example, he learns at a very early age to recognize his mother's face - hardly a simple image! Instinct? A built in automaticity? Perhaps, but it is still an extraordinary feat.

From the mathematical point of view, giving meaning to an image recognizing it as more than an isolated, unique event involves seeing it as an instance of what is called an "equivalence class." Such an equivalence class is a collection of images, all of which are comparable in some recognized sense. To give meaning to what is perceived, one must recognize the class, not merely see the image. This is a major feat of abstraction. The infant has none of the mathematician's formal notion of equivalence, but he must live its reality before he can even begin to relate to the world.

This ability is not confined to human infants. At least mammals seem to have it. The new born of many species, in fact, are able to relate to their surroundings as soon as they are born. Many must begin to actively cope with it at birth - something the human infant will not do for years. I stand in awe and wonderment at this phenomenon.

As I said, neither the human nor the animal infant has any concept of the abstract process. Yet being able to live this process is essential to all later development. It is for this reason the process can be regarded as an archetypal substratum. This is an awe-inspiring mystery well worth contemplating. I suggest it is a largely unappreciated mystery of the mind.

Marshall Pease