if you’re not experimenting on your child, you’re doing something wrong

So I haven’t written anything in a couple of weeks, and I had some exciting ideas worked up about food and also war crimes, but I’m putting those on hold in favor of science.

Our son has a fair number of toys at this point. A number of generous people have contributed new and old playthings for his amusement. Many are met with indifference; a few, like the grabby-ball with the rattle trapped inside and the wand-rattle with the spinning mirror, are favorites. But almost all of them are made of plastic, and being the sort of people who worry at night about pthalates and BPA and the Chinese plot to bring down America by making us a nation of hermaprhodites, we thought it would be nice if he had some wooden toys. So we headed on down to the local IKEA, because obviously nothing in IKEA is made in China, and we bought our son this baby gym:

Brightly colored! Dangly things!

(We also got him a sheepskin to lie on, because apparently he doesn’t enjoy lying on the industrial carpet in our hotel room that much. Go figure. Also because a sheepskin basically triples your baby’s powers of cuteness.)

So we got home and put him on his back on the sheepskin (which he loved right away) and assembled the gym and put it over him… and we saw something we’d never seen before. He whipped his arms out to the side as though he was falling; he seemed unable to focus his eyes. Then he started waving his arms, grabbing the wooden feet of the gym as if to steady himself, and began to cry in fear. It wasn’t the sharp cry of pain or the annoyed complaining of being hungry or tired. Instead there was a long, steady ramp-up that led to full-throated screaming.

We took him out of the gym.


Now lots of times kids don’t like stuff. That’s fine. But we are nerds, and also we had just spent TWENTY-FIVE WHOLE DOLLARS on that gym. So we were determined to get to the bottom of the problem.

Here is a diagram from overhead of how we had set the gym up originally:

As you can see, the gym is perpendicular to the baby.

We tried taking the toys off the gym and dangling them over him one by one:

Don't laugh at my drawings! I was working with a touchpad.

That went well, so we strung the toys on a tape measure over him. This also did not freak him out. So it didn’t seem to be the toys dangling overhead.

We tried repositioning the gym in various ways. First we rotated it 90 degrees, so it was parallel with his midline:

This could also be a picture of a construction accident.

He was fine with that — slightly nervous at the re-appearance of the gym, but not panicky.

Elana lay down on her back and put the gym over her face. “The underside is very dark compared to the ceiling overhead,” she noted. “Maybe he’s having a depth perception problem?”

We put the gym over him again and watched him carefully. Now starting to become familiar with it, he didn’t freak out right away, but reached out for the toys. But he reached past them, or off to the side, as though he could see them but couldn’t work out quite where they were. And his eyes got that unfocused look again. Then he panicked and started to cry.

Normal parents, at this point, would probably conclude that that was enough for one day.

We did not do that.

We put the gym over him with a cloth spread out just above it so he couldn’t see the ceiling. He didn’t love it, but he didn’t strenuously object this time.

We tried turning it upside-down and holding it by its feet, so that the bar was above his face but the legs weren’t in his peripheral vision. Fine. We held a folded-up towel over him at the height of the gym. Also fine.

Hmmm. Mysterious.

Eventually we gave the experimenting a rest and let him use the gym for something else — standing practice. (Also biting practice.)


The best theory we had was that perhaps something about the contrast between the dark underside of the gym and the bright white ceiling was producing an optical illusion that interfered with his vision. The following morning, Elana put him down with the gym next to the window, where the brilliant early light lit up gym, baby, sheepskin and room in a very even and pleasing way. And hey, presto! he suddenly liked his gym. He played with it for quite a while.

So that seemed like a validation of our theory. But I think maybe there’s a more interesting facet to this, because now he’ll play with his gym at any time, under any lighting conditions. Here is a video taken at night, to prove it:

So here is what I think. I think the gym gave him a new vision problem that he hadn’t faced before — it presented objects in multiple planes of depth in his field of vision; the nearest objects were also swinging in unpredictable patterns. I think he literally could not focus the first few times he lay under it, and it may even have made him feel like he was falling.

But as we experimented with different positions and put the gym over him again and again in different ways, I think perhaps his brain began to figure out how to process that information. And then in the morning, when he was fully rested and all the planes in his field of vision were equally well-lit, something in his visual cortex went CLICK!, and it was fine and he had mastered the problem. Simply by repeating the experience for him over and over with slight modifications, I think, we may have helped him work out how to understand it.

Anyway, that’s my theory, but if you have another 5-month-old that I can repeat this experiment on, please contact me.

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7 responses to “if you’re not experimenting on your child, you’re doing something wrong

  1. Man, that is one cute, chubby baby. And you’re correct about the sheepskin’s cuteness enhancing qualities.

    Alas, the Smart Twins were forced to make do with the normal amount of cuteness when they were H’s age, as their parents were obviously dorks with no ability to differentiate them from their peers.

    Man, I sucked.

  2. hahaha! Oh my God, the DIAGRAMS- i LOVED. And also the fact that you guys kept trying the gym even though Henry was totally afraid of it. 😉

    Go-go depth perception!

  3. Bravo, parents! Trying again under different conditions of light and space really makes the brain understand.

    http://tinyurl.com/y3fnxpc

    I read in the NYT today about why some people think cilantro tastes like soap. Totally what Dean thought, but I loved it so and I used it anyway, and now it is one of his favorite herbs.

    ” every new experience causes the brain to update and enlarge its set of patterns, and this can lead to a shift in how we perceive a food.
    “I didn’t like cilantro to begin with,” he said. “But I love food, and I ate all kinds of things, and I kept encountering it. My brain must have developed new patterns for cilantro flavor from those experiences, which included pleasure from the other flavors and the sharing with friends and family. ”

    If the brain isn’t familiar with it then it may be a potential threat – just like that baby gym from Idea.

  4. 1. The diagrams are a riot. Remind me why you didn’t go pursue architecture and/or drafting?
    2. I’m still grappling with the whole Seth has offspring concept. (When I hear the name Seth the picture in my mind’s eye is the photo of you and Miss Johnson after you were named “super-nerd with the highest SAT score at AHS-DCPA.” Miss Johnson looks perplexed and you have a grin on your face as if to suggest “By gum, I’ve just eaten and entire rat, bones and all!”) but I digress….
    3. Obviously repetition desensitized his royal cuteness until he no longer felt threatened or fearful or maybe the whole visual cortex thingee theory you suggested is correct.
    4. It is possible that smurfs were involved and lulled him into a false sense of security only to show up later and try to convince your son to fear cats and live in a giant mushroom?
    5. Your child is uber-smart, not surprising considering his parentage, and repetition coupled with tenacity created the ability for him to solve complex problems and he’s going to be the next James Bond when grows up. (and probably get the highest SAT score in his class as well …)

    • thehandsomecamel

      It’s too early to tell if he’s smart, but if we can help him learn persistence I think he’ll be quite well off. It took me forever to learn to keep trying when things are hard.

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