Monday, March 29, 2004

Instinctive Fear of...

My wife and I were big fans of the original Baby Einstein video with our first child, both because it was one of the few ways to calm our colicky child, and because we liked the premise that playing recorded speeches in different languages might help our child retain the full range of phonemes that are usually lost as babies hardwire their brains strictly for the limited subset of sounds they hear in their mother tongue...only time will tell if the brief taped speech samples contained on the Baby Einstein tape are sufficient to help our daughter's generation hear and so learn other languages more easily.

[I remember only too well the trauma of my own school experiences with a French instructor screaming at me, "Not 'r' you imbecile, 'r'!", with neither of us knowing (because the research came 20 years later) that there really was no way for me to 'hear' a French phoneme to which my developing brain had not been exposed in the first six months of life. The difference may have been painfully obvious to the instructor, just as the Chinese inability to distinguish between 'l' and 'r' seems impossibly odd to Anglophones, but it?s fundamentally a hardware problem, and no amount of shouting and repetition is capable of fixing it.]

So, even before the arrival of our new baby we had purchased the boxed set of Baby Einstein videos, including our current favorite, Baby Bach. The tape displays a series of wonderful toys (I have spent many hours on the internet trying to track down some of them for our own purchase) more or less synchronized with various pieces of classical or other music. The 20 minute tape, in combination with her vibrating bouncy chair, helps Kasia fall asleep when she is otherwise too tired and unusually fussy.

Early on, however, we noticed an inexplicable phenomenon?although our Kasia was turning into a Baby Bach junky, she always exploded into terrified tears during one particular sequence. At first we thought that it was simply a matter that she had reached the limit of her attention span, since no newborn can watch a 20 minute tape all the way through. But this turned out not to be the case, because we would get the same reaction even if we happened to start the tape with that sequence; and as Kasia grew older, she can watch for much longer, even watching attentively as the tape cycles through more than once, provided we hit "skip" on the DVD whenever that particular sequence appears. Then my wife insisted it was the particular musical selection that our daughter was reacting to, but no; when just playing the music track (the DVD has a music only option) there is no reaction. No, as unlikely as it seems, it is demonstrably this one set of visuals that fills our baby with terror.

The sequence in question simply shows three tin toy robots marching peacefully, if somewhat stiffly, to a selection of Bach music. So someone please explain to me how a newborn can have an instinctual fear of robots? I mean, lizards and snakes I can get ? the collective unconscious might well have evolved a very sensible collection of innate fears with which to protect babies. Babies that failed to fear spiders and rats and snakes might well be deprived of the subsequent opportunity to contribute genes to the next generation. But robots? I mean, can you be reincarnated from the future into the present?

Makes my brain hurt.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Spaghetti Harvest

Ooh, ooh, ooh! J. Brian Clarke brought this one to my attention: log on to the
BBC's history site at
click on the 1950's, then click on Panorama's sample video of a 'Spaghetti Harvest'.

This is one of my all time favorite hoaxes, but I had no idea this gem was available on the net...well worth viewing.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

Typical Day of Parental Leave

Being on parental leave, my primary responsibility these days is to take care of my three month old. I nevertheless find myself on campus quite frequently because my wife Mary is still teaching, and since Kasia refuses to take a bottle -- hysterical screaming at the mere sight of a plastic nipple or sippy cup -- I can't be more than two hours away from Mom. Mary nurses Kasia just before teaching a class, and I hang around so she can do another feed on break, if necessary, or immediately after class. If Kasia is sleeping, I can run up to my office and do email; if, as is more commonly the case, Kasia is awake, I struggle to keep her entertained with the small number of toys that are suitable for this age. (Of course, Mom, Dad, and big sister are the primary play objects.) On occasion, however, Kasia begins to cry and I end up walking the corridors to calm her.

The UofL is a great location for walking babies.

First, the aptly-named University Hall has the longest continuous hallways in North America (approximately 1/4 mile). I have now paced these corridors so often that I can describe the cartoons posted on each professor's door from one end of the hallway to the other, on all 8 floors. (Note to colleagues: time to cycle those cartoons! Once the paper turns yellow, it has been up long enough! Get some new material, for pity's sake.)

Second, there are large number of colleagues and alumni to stop me in the hallways to admire Kasia. Walking with a new baby garners far more glances, smiles, and interactions than one would normally experience taking the same route. Talk about positive reinforcement for an exercise routine. And of course, all those smiling adults engaging Kasia significantly adds to my supply of "toys".

Third, I have discovered the game of "Who is a keeper?", a marvelous voyeuristic pastime. One merely carries a baby through a crowd of adolescent couples, as found on campus, and observe the reactions. As Kasia is carried past crowds of female students, three quarters respond with, "Oh, look at the baby! Isn't she adorable?", while approximately a quarter turn away, or cross to the other side of the hallway, apparently fearful that having babies is contagious. Carrying Kasia through crowds of males leads to the same response, but in reverse proportions. What is highly fascinating, however, is watching how couples respond. Given the base statistics reported above, it should not be surprising that three quarters of couples respond with the female at least smiling at the baby, while the male ignores her or looks away. Often the exchange involves the female trying to stop to interact with the baby, while the male exhibits obvious resentment at the delay-- or worse yet-- at the interruption in his date's attention, should he have been talking at the point we come into view. On the other hand, there are about a quarter of the couples where the female goes, "Ooooh, look at the baby!" and the male actually smiles and interacts with the baby with equal interest, then looks at said female with a certain look that tempts me to tell her, "Hey, this one's a keeper!"

Bored with the hallways today, however, I wandered into the Fine Arts Center and the campus art gallery. UofL boasts an art collection far superior to what one would expect on any other similarly sized campus, and whoever runs the gallery actually has some taste ? I usually really enjoy the shows. Wandering around the gallery exhibits today was fun, because having Kasia in my arms gave me an opportunity to muse aloud about the art without looking completely crazy. Okay, commenting on art to a three month old may seem a bit redundant, but babies like to hear the sound of your voice, and it doesn't really matter what you're saying, so might as well be stream of consciousness about art appreciation.

But as I carried Kasia about, it became obvious that some works attracted and held her attention far more than others, and these were usually also the works to which I was drawn. The basis for this selection was not immediately obvious to me, since Kasia seemed equally drawn to abstract and representational works, bright and subtle compositions, and so on. So you have to wonder, is there something deep in our hardwiring or collective unconscious that these more successful works were triggering in both Kasia and I, or do daughters inherit their Dad's tastes, or was I simply unconsciously directing Kasia's attention? Well, there were a few pieces she liked more than me (or at least attended to more than I ? I suppose she might have been looking at them and thinking, "gee, what is it about that one I hate so much", but somehow that seems less likely with babies), so her taste was not identical to mine, but still. So I was thinking, there's probably a research project or two there? Bring babies into a gallery, watch what they look at, identify archetypes?