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This extensive (761 pages) text on Childhood
Cognitive Development contains a series of chapters (27 in all) written by
many of the top names in the field of child cognitive psychology (Simon
Baron-Cohen and Andrew N. Meltzoff to name but a few). The chapters are organized into five parts
which themselves seem somewhat randomly chosen except for Part I (Infancy the
Origins of Cognitive Development). This
isn't to say the chapters themselves are problematic, in fact, the text is a
wealth of information and contains clearly written, authoritative chapters on
various aspects of child psychology, it is simply that
the book is essentially a collection of individually-authored articles and not
a systematic text. Instead of beginning
with a discussion of just what "Childhood Cognitive Development" is
and the paradigms prominent in the text, the text oddly enough ends with
the only chapters that deal with "childhood cognitive development" as
a whole (Part V: Models of Cognitive Development). Thus, this is a text for those already
reasonably well informed with cognitive psychology.
Since it would be impossible to
provide a review of such a long text which deals with hundreds of examples,
experiments and internal theoretical conflicts, let me highlight a few chapters
to give the reader of the review an idea of the kinds of discussions present in
The text begins with two chapters
(really "articles" would be more appropriate) on early infant
cognition of self and other. The first "Imitation
as a Mechanism of Social Cognition:
Origins of Empathy, Theory of Mind, and the Representation of Action"
is by Andrew N. Meltzoff whose 1970's research on neonatal imitation
revolutionized the conception of infants as being largely unaware and
unreactive to the external world. Meltzoff and others discovered,
infants are not only aware of the external world they can actually control their
facial gestures and "imitate."
The author of this review has read numerous pieces by Meltzoff
summarizing his views of the relevance of neonatal imitation and found this
chapter to be one of the better summaries.
argues that neonatal imitation provides a justification for "starting
state" nativism. Meltzoff's theory is that infants come to the world with an
innate set of capacities that allow for self and other recognition (instead of
self and other recognition being a later, culturally relative,
development). This grounds his theory
that infants have a "Theory of Mind."
The second chapter by György Gergely "The Development of
Understanding Self and Agency" takes issue with the kind of nativism
presented in authors like Meltzoff. In particular, Gergelyi
disagrees with the theory that an intersubjective
awareness is present at birth. Gergelyi
claims that research demonstrates that infants do seem to be able to understand
goal directed behavior. Nonetheless, he
argues that one need not appeal to any kind of mentalism to explain this and
other types of infant behavior. For
instance, Gergelyi notes on page thirty-nine that
rats also display the same abilities to attribute goal-directed attention, but
one does not assume they have a theory of mind, even a primal theory of mind.
Further on in the text, in part II,
Henry M. Wellman's "Understanding the Psychological World: Developing a Theory of Mind" argues that
even though four-to-five year olds understand false beliefs, an understanding
of one's own mind as a mind occurs much later—at seven-to-ten years old. This distinguishes Wellman from the claims of
Meltzoff and others. Wellman argues for
a more universal approach to thinking about innate characteristics
distinguishing himself from the approaches of Meltzoff and Fodor.
Interesting research in the
differences between children with autism and those without are explored in
chapter 22 "The Exact Mind: Empathizing and Systemizing in Autism Spectrum"
(Simon Baron-Cohen, Sally Wheelwright, John Lawson, Rick Griffin, and
Jacqueline Hill). The authors return to
the issue of "minds" with a summary of how to deal with the cognitive
differences present in autism and normal children. One theory, "mindblindness,"
argues that, descriptively speaking, autistic persons have deficits in empathy
precisely because they fail to understand the minds of others (and even their
Finally, the last section includes
some of the most interesting work as to how to approach the child's cognitive
development globally, rather than simply addressing a particular issue or time
period of life. Attention to facts and
the desire avoiding making overblown philosophical claims dominates
the "scientific" ethos of cognitive psychology. However, one wonders how possible this
endeavor is when dealing with such nebulous terms as "mind" given the
brief mention of a few chapters above.
Indeed, one is struck by a 761 page text on childhood development with
only 100 pages being devoted to development overall—that is, with the theory of
cognitive development itself rather that a particular part of development. I would argue a handbook would do well to
begin with an analysis of the dominant models or at minimum a discussion of the
value-laden terms at play in the various authors.
To illustrate my point, if one
takes the very short list of articles illustrated above one sees how a simple
set of terms and ideas has no basic reference point and thus it is hard to
really compare theories and authors. It
appears that just what Meltzoff is doing is portrayed differently in each
author that cites him. Meltzoff himself
does not seem to think he holds as strong of a position as Wellman and Gergelyi
take him to hold. It appears that each
author is left to slightly revise the metapsychological terms at play. One cannot say that Meltzoff's
own opinion of his work is right since there is no larger theory one is working
in to establish what right and wrong mean.
Without some kind of clear, consistently articulated set of positions,
one feels quite lost trying to understand the relevance of each particular
study within the larger context of development.
aspects of Piaget's theory (and Freud's although psychoanalysis is largely
absent) of child development are refuted by the various authors, a void is left
where no one seems to have developed a coherent alternative to understanding
development as a whole. It seems the
generally accepted theory is a negative one:
Freud was extremely mistaken; Piaget was largely mistaken. One simply cannot work from the ground up
since one doesn't even know what the "ground" is.
Nonetheless, the Blackwell
Handbook of Childhood Cognitive Development is
a useful text with an extensive list of references invaluable to the student or
researcher of cognitive childhood psychology.
I can highly recommend it to anyone interested in the subject.
© 2004 Talia
Talia Welsh, Ph.D., Department of Philosophy, The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
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