Research Review

Thomas Lyon

"The Notion of Subjective Mind"

excerpted from:
"Games" In the Game Room
by Barbara Dake, Parent - West P.M.
The Bing Times - April/May 1991

This year, Tom Lyon, a Stanford University graduate student, is elaborating on John Flavell's inquiries into the development of the mind in children by conducting a study at Bing on the complicated issue of when children become developmentally capable of understanding memory and what he terms " the notion of subjective mind." In other words, at what age do children grasp the fact that they, like all humans, possess as mind that filters their experience of reality through the selective process of memory. More than 90 Bing students ages 3 to 5—whose parents signed consent forms at the beginning of the school term—have participated in Lyon's ongoing studies. They visit the Game Room individually during normal preschool hours to play what to them seems like very silly question-and-answer games with Lyon and his research assistants.

For example, in "Where's the Football", Lyon shows a preschooler a doll family—Mommy, Daddy, and a child—and their home. He places a toy football under the doll house couch and says, "The football is here." He then pretends Daddy and Mommy are looking for the football. Daddy looks under the couch and sees the ball.

"Does Daddy know where the football is?", asks Lyon. Almost every child answers affirmatively. Lyon then has Mommy look on top of the couch where the football is not visible. "Does Mommy know where the ball is?", Lyons asks. Again, even toddlers usually give the correct answer: "No." The game grows more complicated when Lyon says, "Mommy and Daddy go to work and stay all day long. They come home and now neither one can know where the football is. Which person forgot?"

The younger the child is, Lyon observes, the more likely she is to say that the mother forgot. Children ages 4 and older seem to formally understand that the character who knew before, Daddy, is the one who forgot.

Lyon suspects the reason younger children become confused is that they have limited capacity to grasp abstraction such as "mind " and "memory". "What I'm interested in is at what point children understand that there is a mind that can hold information and lose information without any changes in the outside world," says Lyon. "If they understand the concept of "forgetting"—that the mind can hold information and then lose it—then that indicates they at least have an inkling of under-standing how the mind works."

An underlying assumption of Tom Lyon's research is that young children are develop-mentally limited in their ability to think like adults. Consider, for example, a hypothetical case of 3-year-old Johnny and the missing cookies.

Johnny's mother discovers him in the kitchen grasping an empty bag of cookies shortly before supper. "Did you eat the cookies?" she asks with obvious disapproval. The child pauses, his face pinched with concern. "Nope," he says finally, smiling as he wipes the cookie crumbs from his upper lip, "didn't do it." The mother's heart sinks. She is dismayed that her son has not told the truth. If she were able to read his mind, however, she might find that he has told a "lie" in the grown-up sense of the word.

If one defines lying as "the willful misrepresentation of reality with the intent to create a false belief in others," then the child may well be innocent, says Lyon. The younger a child is, he says, the more likely he or she is to be confused about how knowledge is formed. "Children can lie without intending to create false belief in another person." Thus the motivation behind 3-year-old Johnny's fib isn't a brazen attempt to fool his mother since he does not yet understand he has the ability to create a false belief. Instead, it is the wish to avoid punishment, Lyon says. "Experience tells him that his prospects are probably brighter if he denies eating the cookie."

Lyon's research offers insight into another common situation parents of pre-schoolers face, the "Where's My Toy" dilemma. Many young children become upset when a parent cannot locate a lost toy, even though the adult was not in the room when the toy was lost. In addition, if parents admit they have forgotten something, such as the name of a playmate, the child may become distraught, arguing, "But of course you remember!"

The reasons that young children tend to assume their parents are all-knowing, Lyon says, is because they do not understand how knowledge is acquired. This development-ally linked difficulty is further confused by the fact that, through a child eyes, adults often seem to have "mysterious knowledge." A squirming toddler, for example, is often amazed when his mother divines "out of the blue," that he needs to go to the bathroom. Parents of preschoolers can expect major changes between the ages of 3-5 in their children's ability to understand the role the mind plays in interpreting reality, Lyon says. He hastens to emphasize that children's ability to grasp the notion of "subjective mind" is "not a matter of intelligence. It's a gradual process of maturation that allows them to grasp these simple ideas."

As late as elementary school, he adds, some may still have trouble understanding that it is possible to "misremember" something, due to such factors as false beliefs, faulty observation skills or outside suggestion.

One way parents can gauge their preschooler's development is paying attention to the kinds of questions they ask. "Usually around the end of the third year," Lyon says, "kids start asking a lot more questions like, 'How did you know that?' They may spontaneously start talking about how they fooled their parents: "I pretended I was a monster and you didn't know it.'"

When children enter this stage, they become intrigued with how knowledge is formed. Lyon suggests that parents capitalize on their children's enthusiasm by devising creative games that revolve around how information is acquired. Johnny's mother, for example, might have asked him to play "detective" and guess how she really knew that he had taken the cookies.

Lyon, a graduate of Harvard Law School, became interested in the process of children's memory while working as an attorney in Southern California representing social workers who specialized in child abuse and neglect cases. "One of the problem I saw in court was that young children testifying about an abusive event were not able to monitor their memories as well as older children,"he says. The younger the child, the more likely he or she was to become confused in a court setting. For example, both adults and children who testify in legal cases are often asked complicated questions with lists of imbedded clauses and difficult vocabulary. Adults in such situations know to respond,"I don't understand," Lyon says. Children,"because they are not as capable of monitoring their own comprehension" and because they feel pressure to conform to adult expectations, "are much more likely to attempt to answer questions even if it means coming up with some weird or incorrect answers," Lyon says.

Courts are often insensitive to the special needs of children because they know "next to nothing" about child psychology, says Lyon. The fact that very young children sometimes have limited or inconsistent memories is assumed to be true of all children "from teens on down," he says. "Yet, there is a lot of good evidence that suggests that a 9 or 10-year-old's memory is as good as an adult's. They have a pretty good understanding that they can forget, that they can be fooled and that sometimes they don't understand things."

Lyon says there is currently a nationwide movement to make the courts more sensitive to the developmental needs of children testifying in court cases and that new guidelines for interviewing and examining youngsters in the courtroom are under investigation. For example, it has been suggested that children may need a appropriate language and concepts.

To the degree Lyon's research helps chart the progression of memory and the concept of "subjective mind" in children, it could aid this movement by indicating what can be developmentally expected of children at different ages in the courtroom. No matter what the final application of Lyon's studies, Bing pre-schoolers will once again have made a serious contribution to child development research in the "Game Room."