One of the many rewards of parenthood is it allows you to study how we humans “learn to learn”. Observing your child construct their understanding of the world also offers insights into how we adults do it, which in turn can improve your communication with others, if that sort of stuff matters to you.
Perhaps the most significant method kids use is analogy – comparing things they know, with things they don’t, building levels of comprehension and complexity. We’ve all had a variation of the conversation: “What’s beer, daddy?” “It’s like a fizzy drink for grown-ups”.
New Scientist offers the example of motherhood. Kids recognise their mums very early on, then slowly realise other people have them, that animals also have mothers and then, that even their mothers have mothers. Eventually they extend the idea of motherhood to objects like motherboards and mother of pearl and finally to concepts that don’t physically exist, like Mother Nature.
Douglas Hofstadter, author of the influential treatise on consciousness, Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, rates analogy the core of human cognition: “Analogies, far from being unusual cognitive gems, are mundane events, being generated several times every second, and it is through them we manage to orient ourselves in the world,” he writes.
Like children, even the most experienced adult meets new, often dangerous situations many times a day. We deal with them by comparing them to past experiences, creating analogies almost subconsciously. Thus, you don’t need to have crossed a foreign road or driven a strange car to know how to do it.
You also need not have experienced a person’s life history to understand it. That “me too” feeling when you empathise is just an abstract form of analogy, as is the stuttering “like” of teen conversation and tens of thousands of other words, concepts, expressions and proverbs – from “messy” to “soap opera”, “slippery slope”, “been there, done that” and “the new black”.
Hofstadter argues analogy is also how almost every great scientific discovery has been made and explained to nonbelievers – from Earth being round like a ball, to Einstein’s theory of light “particles” (photons), black holes and the “Big Bang”.
Once you realise how much cognition depends on analogy, you can improve your own communication by stitching together word pictures other people (or your children) already understand, to explain the idea you’re trying to project. If you get my meaning.
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