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STANFORD - Preschoolers know that rocks do not think, but they very often assume their parents aren't thinking either, says John Flavell, a Stanford University psychologist who studies what children know and don't know about the inner life of the mind.
Children as young as 3 know some things about thinking, Flavell said, but vastly less than they will at age 8 or so. Flavell and his longtime research assistants, Francie Green and Ellie Flavell, who is also his wife, have worked together 17 years. They began only two years ago studying meta-consciousness, or what the developing mind knows about its own workings.
Most research on children's cognitive development investigates the child's developing knowledge about the physical and mathematical worlds, that is, children's knowledge about objects, physical causality, quantity and the like. In contrast, Flavell and some other researchers are trying to learn about the child's developing knowledge about the mental world - the world of people's feelings, desires, beliefs. His current work focuses on children's developing knowledge about thought and consciousness, an important segment of this mental world.
Working mostly with children at the Bing School on campus, they've found that preschoolers know, for example, that "thinking is something people do," Flavell said. "If you ask them whether rocks think, even the 3-year-olds seem to know they don't . . . . They also don't confuse thinking with other activities, like talking about or touching or looking at things."
They know not only that a thing doesn't have to be present to be thought about, but it can be something as imaginary as a pink dog or as real as a mud-encrusted T-shirt, he said.
In one experiment for example, Francie shows Ellie a small- necked bottle with a large pear in it while a child watches. Francie then asks Ellie how a great big pear got inside such a little bottle.
"Gee, that's a hard one," Ellie responds. "Give me a minute."
Ellie then turns away from the pear in the bottle, faces the window and takes on the studious pose of Rodin's Thinker. Francie asks the child a series of questions about what Ellie is doing.
The preschoolers almost always correctly answer no when asked if Ellie is looking at, touching or talking about the pear in the bottle, Flavell said, but most say yes when asked if she is thinking about it.
On the other hand, Flavell says, "little children only seem to think a person is thinking when there is some evidence of thinking. The idea that there is something or other going on all of the time in the mind of a conscious person completely escapes them."
In another experiment with 4-year-olds, Francie asks Ellie to wait while she and the child do something first. Ellie "waits" by turning away and sitting facing a blank wall. The child has previously been familiarized with two "thought bubbles" used in cartoons, one that is empty and the other with three large asterisks in it to symbolize thoughts. The child is then asked which of the thought bubbles describes Ellie's mind at the moment. The child usually picks the empty bubble. Adults in the same situation almost unanimously choose the non-empty bubble.
Even in situations where Ellie is reading a book, listening to a story on tape through headphones or looking at a picture, Flavell said, half or more of 4- and 5-year-olds will say that nothing is going on in her mind.
"By the ages of 6, 7 and 8, they certainly say that she is thinking about the story or the tape or the picture, as an adult would say," he said.
"The younger kids do two things that are different. One is that they are apt to say no, nothing's going on in her mind, and the other is that if they do say something is going on, when you ask them what she is thinking about, they often won't point to what it manifestly must be. They will say she is thinking about a picnic or something else unrelated."
While they progressively gain understanding about thinking before starting elementary school, 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds in general "greatly underestimate the amount of mental activity that goes on in other people's minds, and they also underestimate it in themselves," Flavell said.
The researchers also devise experiments in which they are reasonably certain that children are thinking and even what they are thinking about. Then they try to find out if the children know about their own thinking.
In one, a child is asked to decide which is the longer of two crayons that have been placed at an angle to each other so it's difficult to tell which is longer.
Once the child picks a crayon, he or she is asked to change chairs, and within a few seconds, is asked what he or she was thinking about while seated in the first chair.
The children generally don't recall - or at least don't say they recall - thinking about the crayons, Flavell said. If asked specifically about one crayon and then the other, however, they frequently remember thinking about the longer one - the winner - but not the shorter crayon - the loser.
"We know, however, that they must have thought about both, because we observed their eyes looking at one crayon and then the other," he said.
The preschoolers probably have three disadvantages in recalling their thoughts, he said. "In addition to not being very good at detecting them, they are not good at remembering them, and they also aren't very good at helping themselves remember more by inferring. They don't say, as an adult would, 'Well, gee, what was I doing a few seconds ago?' and therefore, 'What must I have been thinking about?' "
Children's difficulty understanding that thinking is ongoing and that one thought triggers another may partly be because they don't hear more experienced thinkers talking about their brain chatter, Flavell said.
"It's interesting that we don't have a word in our language that means stream of consciousness," he said, "which probably means people don't find it as important as other things for which we do have single terms, like I believe, I want, I feel or I see."
Parents, for example, "want children to know that people feel bad when you do bad things to them, so they talk about it," he said. "And, not surprisingly, kids at 2 and 3 already know something about feelings. But they haven't a clue about thinking."
Flavell cited as an example his own early childhood experience during the Depression.
"Even though my father was unemployed for a long time, I didn't have the slightest clue that there was anything going on," he said. "I didn't know my parents were worried about anything until I was older. We aren't aware of the inner lives of our parents, and it's probably a good thing too."
Even as adults, he pointed out, "people don't constantly hear other people's brain chatter, or even our own, as if it were a TV screen that won't shut off."
With their limited experience of inner life, however, Flavell suggests that "little kids probably think of other people rather the way adults sometimes think about animals or maybe the way people used to think about their slaves - as people who don't have an ongoing inner life with all kinds of fantasies, obsessions, worries and stuff. When my dog is just sitting there not [appearing to be] perceiving anything, I expect not a whole lot is going on, and that may be what little kids expect of us."
Recent experiments, he said, also indicate preschoolers don't understand that the mind is more like a flashlight than a floodlight, that it focuses on only one or a few things at a time rather than "shining" on everything. When Ellie and Francie set up a situation where one of them is looking for a certain color button in a handful of buttons, only school-age children seem to realize the searcher can be thinking more about the buttons in the hand than about the hand, at which she is also looking.
Elementary schooling probably makes a large difference in what children know about the workings of the mind, Flavell said. "Thinking becomes a topic of discussion in elementary school. The teacher says, 'Pay attention,' 'Think harder,' 'How did you get that answer?'
"Schooling, in general, is known to help children be aware of their mental strategies and whether they understand something or don't. My guess is that it probably helps their introspection, too."
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