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Babies Can See Dust

I’m just back from a couple of months off on paternity leave, which we spent taking my nine-month-old around the world to visit friends and family. While we were away we were listening to Phillip Pullman audiobooks, and so I was thinking a lot about his beautiful idea of dust as a physical correlate of human consciousness.

This is evident in the scene in The Subtle Knife, where different types of artefacts are viewed through a sensor that can ‘see dust’—and those created by humans have a subtle glow about them that other objects don’t.

Sometimes, while we were away, my wife and I would both have quick jobs to do on our phones or laptops, and so we’d lay out some brightly coloured toys to keep our baby Freddie entertained while we did them. We quickly learnt, though, that this just wouldn’t work! Time and time again he would ignore his toys, and then come over and want to play with whatever I was looking at. Even though a laptop has far fewer things that he can actually do with it than his toys do — he’s too young to press the keys or interact with it in any way (other than trying to lick it), and my laptop is less brightly coloured, so less salient, than his toys are.

Baby interacting with mum, babies at this age can see dust

This is annoying, of course—I doubt that there’s a parent out there who hasn’t at some point become irritated with their kids in exactly this same situation. But what is it that makes adult objects like laptops so fascinating to babies? Well, there is quite a lot of research (Coordinating Attention to People and Objects in Mother-Infant andPeer-Infant Interaction; Natural Pedagogy) out there suggesting that one of the ways in which we decide what to attend to from one second to the next is by looking at what other people are paying attention to. If an object is a target of someone else’s attention it immediately becomes more attractive, and important, to us. And this mechanism is, clearly—strongly present in babies already. To use Phillip Pullman’s idea, by paying attention to my laptop I put a sprinkling of dust on it in baby Freddie’s eyes—and that dust makes him want to play with it, too.

This mechanism, like imitation (the tendency to copy someone else’s actions and gestures) is reasonably well understood by developmental psychologists as something that helps us to learn efficiently within social settings. I’m doing some research at the moment on how these mechanisms are substantiated in the brain.

But what does it mean practically, as a caregiver? Well, one of the things that it made me realise was we spend a lot of time telling our children what to do (or what not to do!), but we spend relatively little time actually doing what we want them to do! Thinking about it, I spend amazingly little time actually looking at the types of objects that I want Freddie to pay attention to. So most of the time, if Freddie wants to look where I’m looking, it’s actually quite annoying, because I’m looking at an adult object—such as my laptop. We talk the talk, but we don’t walk the walk.

So… be flattered, rather than annoyed, when your baby comes and dribbles on your laptop! It is a compliment, honestly! And think about how you can use that power – paying attention to the things that you want them to be aware of, rather than to the traditional objects in our adult lives. You never know – it might do you good, too…