Things seem to be changing in the way Hal Mills, now 16 months, sees images on the page. His father, Roger Mills, explains.
One of my son Hal’s favourite books from the beginning of his ‘reading’ career has been a touchy-feely title called That’s Not My Tractor. Every page features a schematised drawing of a tractor, part of which is made of a textured material. There’s a tractor with a trailer made of sandpaper with the caption ‘That’s not my tractor, its trailer is too rough’. One with soft plastic panels for tyres is the wrong tractor because the wheels are ‘too squashy’.
As well as the tractors, a recurrent motif in each picture is a little white mouse, and though it is difficult to be sure exactly how Hal saw things, in the early days it seemed as though he never noticed the mouse. When each page opened up he would always put his finger straight on to the textured bit, but when we pointed out the mouse his response was to simply look blank.
Around 15 months though, Hal started noticing and pointing to the mouse. It seemed as if something fairly important had changed in the way he saw images on a page, as if before the mouse was just part of an overall pattern, not noteworthy in its own right, whereas now he could see it as an object standing out from the overall pattern.
The shift in his way of looking at the book is part of a broader shift in Hal’s way of seeing the world. Pointing has become one of Hal’s big things at the moment. He is constantly jabbing a finger out, drawing attention to something. Often it is cars or trees. Our cat gets the finger on the occasions she is rash enough to stay around and get noticed (her tail getting pulled is the inevitable consequence of being spotted). Sometimes you haven’t a clue what he has seen, but what does seem clear is that he is now noticing things in a way that he didn’t when he was smaller.
In the last issue I talked about how theorists like John Bowlby have argued that infants at this stage start to recognise that they are distinct from mother, a separate person. And it seems likely both that this new way of seeing is a crucial part of recognising that mum is another person, and that the knowledge that she is distinct from you, encourages you to see objects as separate. Before, when Hal looked at our garden, I think he saw something like an overall pattern, a visual field the brain made relatively little sense of. When he looks now though, it is as if he is seeing a field full of distinct, different things – trees, plants, pots. He has started to see a world full of objects.
Seeing things as distinct objects enables another crucial shift. You start to realise that there are categories of objects. Tall things with trunks and leaves and branches, though they don’t all look exactly the same, nevertheless belong to the same family. They are all trees. It is no accident that it is at this stage, at the time when infants start to see that there are families of objects, that words first appear. Not long after Hal started pointing to things, he began to say his first words (‘car’ being the first arrival, closely followed by ‘tree’). A new capacity to see has ushered in a way of thinking in which, for the first time, it made sense to use words. These are tiny and very normal steps if you don’t think about them. But in the development of a mind they are quantum leaps.
Roger Mills is a Psychodynamic Counsellor.