This year I became an Uncle, and in a few days time I will become a goodparent. My niece’s name is Ella, and we’ve met by video but not in person, so I know what she looks like and what she sounds like, but not yet what she smells like. I mailed her parents a little adaptor back in September so that they could plug their 8-inch tablet computer into their television set and show me to Ella life-size. However, when they tried it, she carried on looking at the much smaller computer screen. She saw through the trick straight away! You see, she knows that Uncle Phil is really a 4-inch talking head, not some blown-up new-fangled TV projection.
I wonder what Ella will think when she meets the real me? Perhaps we should spend some time playing with the tablet together, so that she can see me and my 4-inch talking head at the same time. Then, when we each go home, she’ll know that when she next sees my talking head, she’ll really be seeing me.
Imagine what the world must be like to a 9-month old person. If you get a chance this holiday season you should get down on the floor with one of them and try it out, because it’s brilliant. Almost everything around you is new, and there is nothing on your to-do list except “explore”! For example, if you are nine months old, there is no better use of the next 10 minutes of your life than to do everything you can think of doing with that wooden spoon that Granny just gave you to play with. Does it feel like the plastic ladle I had yesterday? (For best results, I’ll need to put it in my mouth.) Does it taste the same? Not quite. I’ll try banging the spoon on the table. (A nice loud sound! I made that.) This spoon and yesterday’s ladle make different banging sounds. And they also look different, and taste different, so that’s now three ways things can be different. So much variety! Almost everything in the world is different from everything else.
But what happens when I bang the table with the spoon again? The sound is the same as it was a minute ago. And now? Yep. And how about now? Yep. So this is interesting: the world is full of all sorts of different things, but lots of them stay the same in some way. Most of the time you can tell what’s going to happen next.
Books though: books are not like that. When you turn the page of a book, you don’t know what’s going to be on the next page (unless you’ve read it before): what fun! It’s like when you’re playing with a grown-up, and they do something unexpected. People are different from most other things: sometimes you can tell what they’re going to do and sometimes you can’t. You just have to do the best you can. (Keep watching, though, as the grown-ups hide and re-appear, hide and re-appear: it’s worth it to see them smile again.)
The insights that toddlers have are extremely profound, but they are about things that are so familiar to us that we don’t even notice them any more. The world is incredibly diverse, requiring each of us to inhabit an immensely complicated mental model just to keep track of it all. However, it is also so predictable that we are able to update this model, in real time, using a miniscule fraction of the sensory data streaming into our nervous system. It turns out that wood is like plastic, mostly carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, in different arrangements but leading to solid materials that are similarly lightweight and strong; but they are made by two very different organisms that have figured out how to harness energy and recycle atoms in very different ways.
These are amazing facts, but almost all of the time we pay them not a moment’s thought. We’ve got other things to do, apparently! Well, this Christmas I shall be down on the floor with Ella, wondering at the world through her eyes. It’s the moments of novelty, realization, unpredictability, that remind us what a wonderful world we live in. Surprise! Informed, delighted, we are children again.