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.