What on earth is going on in children's heads?
December 1, 2004 1:39 PM   Subscribe

What on earth is going on in children's heads?

I have no memory of being a child, and certainly none of what sort of things I thought about when I was a kid. As an adult, I see kids do inexplicable things and wonder just how the heck they thought to say/do such strange things; and I see kids witness/experience things that they have no framework whatsoever for understanding.

What goes on in a kid's brain? Is it noise, is it long ponderings, is it blank, is it confused, etc. Any idea what "it sounds like" inside there?

What on earth is going on in children's heads?

I have no memory of being a child, and certainly none of what sort of things I thought about when I was a kid. As an adult, I see kids do inexplicable things and wonder just how the heck they thought to say/do such strange things; and I see kids witness/experience things that they have no framework whatsoever for understanding.

What goes on in a kid's brain? Is it noise, is it long ponderings, is it blank, is it confused, etc. Any idea what "it sounds like" inside there?
posted by five fresh fish to Human Relations (60 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know about you, I still remember what it was like. And as such, all kids are different. I knew even then what was running through my head wasn't exactly what was going through other kids' heads, and what they were thinking definitely wasn't going through the other kids' heads, etc.

I remember having a few bouts of misplaced fear, and now I realize how silly it was, but that's an ongoing thing for everyone I'm sure.

I definitely remember a lot of those first times, first experiences, like fucking with a computer for the first time, or the first time I beat a video game. I think my general mode was curiosity, and daydreaming. Even now I still feel that at least a couple of times daily.

Not sure if that answers your question, but maybe it'll contrast with something you were thinking of and end up giving you an answer.
posted by angry modem at 1:46 PM on December 1, 2004

How old a kid are we talking about here?

My knowledge of the actual science of child development is somewhat limited, but I do know that my two year old has a pretty rich inner life, and that my six month old has a very slapstick sense of humor. So there's something going on in there.
posted by padraigin at 1:47 PM on December 1, 2004

How can you have no memory of your childhood?

That just astounds me, but only because I can remember back as far as learning to walk when I was 9 months old and even further back, to when I was 6 months old in my bouncer on the porch. Bounced right down those concrete steps, haven't been the same since...

Kid's brains are like a sponge, just waiting to soak in whatever they can, process it, figure it out and save it for later use. When a kid gets that 'blank stare' they're processing. When they're doing something that looks really stupid to you, they've either been told flat-out not to and are being defiant, or they've never been told not to and they don't know any better.

Yeah, there's a lot of noise, but for the most part, kids are just learning.
posted by kamylyon at 1:56 PM on December 1, 2004

The best book ever about what is going on in young children's minds is The Magic Years by Selma Freiberg. I can't recommend it enough. It's available at libraries and used book stores everywhere.
posted by jasper411 at 1:57 PM on December 1, 2004

I have never heard of a six month old being able to remember - sorry if I'm skeptical, but are you sure you didn't just hear stories of that event?
posted by agregoli at 2:06 PM on December 1, 2004

Do you always think in language now, fff? Because kids don't do that yet. They just feel, or think in emotions. They don't have everything automatically convert into an "internal monologue." I hope I don't, either.
posted by Shane at 2:09 PM on December 1, 2004

I apologise for jonmc's outburst. You have to forgive his rudeness, as he's had an ongoing grudge against me.

When I commissioned his research firm to create a flying, six-fingered dog, he initially agreed. Due to "creative differences", largely due to his inability to keep up with deadlines and poor accounting proceedures which I assure you had nothing to do with my end. Maddening delays and repeated breakdowns in communication caused the design specs to be revised many, many times, far more than I or jon could be bothered to remember.

It was during another of our squabbles than jonmc vented in a pique that all I deserved was "five fresh fish...and nothing else". I thought he was nuts, and was begging me to fire him, sue his lab, or whatever. So I called his bluff and...so help me, I actually dared the guy into creating you.

I hold no sorrow for your lack of childlike wonder. You hold the potential to become a truly ruthless coporate entity - far, far more than an investor of my caliber could even dream of in a thousand years. Use that power instead. Build an empire, destroy the world, whatever. Just don't waste your ambitions on youth. That's what small people worry about. Small people who pay taxes.
posted by Smart Dalek at 2:10 PM on December 1, 2004 [4 favorites]

worth it for kamylyon's bouncy story. I too remember glimpses of being a baby, when dad changed my diaper and pretended to eat my feet just like mum would do, but he had this tickly beard and I got my first bellyache from laughing too hard. There's lots of gaps in years, but I remember the strangest things from when I was a kid. I remember being terrified by a statue of a giraffe when I was two, all the while my mother told me it wasn't dangerous and it was just a statue [a concept I wasn't ready to grasp yet]. The long neck freaked me out and I didn't dare to go outside (where the statue was). This was when we were staying at a hotel, there are no photographs of it, I can describe the hotel and my mum is surprised that I can recall it so well, since I was a wee toddler. Some people just remember when they were kids I guess.

How I was thinking? I daydreamed all the time, and was curious about everything (I remember what sand off my plastic shovel felt like in my mouth!). Lots of strange emotions bubbling. Not much different from today.
posted by dabitch at 2:23 PM on December 1, 2004

I remember a great deal of my internal childhood world. I spent ninety percent of my time trying to figure out how everything worked. I was curious about everything from how television shows came to be to why the US fought a war in a place called Viet Nam. I thought a great deal about the rules that were imposed on me; whether they were fair or not, whether there was a need for them, how to get around them, etc. I think I must have become acquainted very early on with guilt, because I knew there were things I could get away with, but I worried that, if I did, I'd feel guilty later. My family life was far less than ideal and I had a pronounced sense (and I think conscious belief) that if I was going to survive or get where I wanted to go (both literally and figuratively), I had best get busy learning how the system worked and figuring out how to beat it.
posted by Clay201 at 2:24 PM on December 1, 2004

Shane's got it, it's emotions rather than language. "Tasty? Scary!! Funny! Tired.... zzzzz"
posted by dabitch at 2:26 PM on December 1, 2004

I believe children do the inexplicable because they do not understand the world; they need to make up their own myths and metaphors to makes sense of it. We're not much better. MetaFilter is proof.
posted by pedantic at 2:28 PM on December 1, 2004

oh, and it's not confused as much as very easily distracted. oooh, shiny!.. toddels off...
posted by dabitch at 2:28 PM on December 1, 2004

Another vote for The Magic Years. Not "magic" as in "what a magical time, as we look at these budding creatures," but "magic" as in "I can perform magic by doing certain things or saying certain things." An example: Kid sees a cookie on the table. He points at it, looks at mom, and cries out "Mama! Mama!" Mom interprets that as "Mom, I love you, will you please hand me that cookie?" Kid is thinking "Cookie in mouth! Abracadabra!" Regardless, the cookie goes from table to mom's hand, to kid's hand to kid's mouth; a process initiated with the magic words, "mama." Hence ... the magic years.

Kid's brains are like a sponge, just waiting to soak in whatever they can, process it, figure it out and save it for later use. When a kid gets that 'blank stare' they're processing.
There's an educational philosophy partly built around that premise (young kids' brains are like sponges), called classical education.

I remember being terrified by a statue of a giraffe when I was two My brother-in-law was similarly terrified of those "beehives" along the highway that store salt and sand.
posted by Alt F4 at 2:32 PM on December 1, 2004

I only have fleeting memories of my childhood, then again I have trouble remembering what happened yesterday as opposed to twenty years ago. I discovered Nintendo around age 8, then suddenly the next 4 years of my life were taken from me. *grumble*

I think kids just want to learn the who, what, when, where and why of everything around them, and haven't built up enough common sense for that little voice in the back of their heads to say "Don't do that... it's stupid." Come to think of it, alot of adults haven't done this either...
posted by spungfoo at 2:42 PM on December 1, 2004

There is puh-lenty of research on this -- look for writings on "developmental psychology" and "cognitive pyschology". See Noam Chomsky (who would say that there IS no thinking -- as in, internal monologue, self-chatter -- before language, that language and thinking are one); and see Jean Piaget, who studied in detail how children construct ideas of the world. Any college textbook on child development will help.

That said, experiences can differ based on learning modalities. I am a very verbal person, talked a lot as a baby, and learned to read on my own before starting school. So I can actually remember my internal monologue, which was pretty loud and active from that age on. There are people who seem to be able to remember to very young ages -- six months, sure, why not -- and those people tend to be highly visual learners.

The main difference between the childhood and the adult mind is the perception of time. Childhood tends to be about the present moment -- thus the impulsivity and the immersive power of the daydream. In adulthood, we encounter fewer new experiences, and time seems to run much faster because we are doing so much less processing of the new.
posted by Miko at 2:45 PM on December 1, 2004

hmm, I'm with fff, I don't remember anything before about the age of 18 or 19... except a few odd flashes of images that don't make much sense. Children are weird.
posted by Grod at 2:47 PM on December 1, 2004

I think kids are more like animals in that they don't really ponder so much as act and react. And yes, that's oversimplification and, in some, it extends into adulthood. That isn't to say that kids are incapable of introspection, reflection and deliberate and rational action, they are definitely capable but that isn't their default mode of action.

In fact, I think that's one of the main problems in society now, no one seems to think beyond the instant in play.

As for not remembering childhood, did you guys get dropped on your heads alot? 18 or 19 is your earliest memory? Did you sniff glue all the time? I have many, many clear and vivid memories going back to my early childhood including one or two when my grandfather was still alive and he died when I was 4.
posted by fenriq at 2:49 PM on December 1, 2004

I remember a lot of things from my childhood, including the dog my aunt only had until I was 11 months old. I have pretty good sequential recall from the age of 4 on, and isolated but very vivid memories from ca. 11 months (dog) to age 4.

I have some really strong memories of a puppet show I found really scary at age 2, a trip to an amusement park and petting zoo at age 3, and a birthday party for my neighbor at age 4. When I say "really strong memories" I mean I remember them as clearly as I do my wedding, which was five years ago.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:59 PM on December 1, 2004

pedantic: Ha!

Count me in with one of those that doesn't remember their childhood. I don't remember my dreams, either, so maybe there's a disconnect between the parts of my brain that are responsible for slumber-dreams and childhood emotions, and the part that is responsible for rationality or memory.
My memory really starts at about 12, although I can catch glimpses of earlier points if I concentrate hard enough. According to my parents, when I talk about those glimpses, there's always something off about them -- the colors of, i.e., the carpet are different, or I'm remembering a neighbour's house instead of our own (we lived in many places when I was a kid.) ... the first thing I can really remember in detail was at age 12 when I had my first crush. ;)
posted by SpecialK at 3:02 PM on December 1, 2004

I think there are imprints of my childhood thinking in the way I think now . . . as a child, I never knew when anything was happening or what was going on. I knew the seasons of the year, for example, academically, but I only recently (I'm 28!) started really feeling and anticipating seasonal changes, and I think that has only happened because time has sped up for me so much since having a child--tell me something is going to take a year, and it might as well be an hour. I remember falling into chest-crushing tears every time, at the end of every summer, my mom would tell me school was starting again the next day. Even as an older kid, every day the order of classes was a total surprise even though they were the same all year long. Okay, put away your math; it's time for spelling! Spelling? I love spelling! I can't believe it's spelling time! Changing classes in junior high and high school was a perpetual mindfuck.

I remember puzzling things out for hours--naptime during kindergarten was in a big room with a poster of a gorilla and the word 'ANSWER' on it, and I would stay still and mouth the word over and over, with special emphasis on the 'W.' I must have done this for hundreds of hours, cumulatively.

I remember being very, very small and loving the texture of a satin pillow that had been handpainted with ducks. I would pinch and rub the painted areas of the satin for hours and sort of trance out on it. (The ability to go into a sort of meditative state was definitely something that came naturally until I was in my late teens.) Never doubt that giving your child something textured/colorful/otherwise stimulating, but in a simple way, can have a big impact.

I remember thinking ridiculous things--that my grandmother's laugh was 'the family laugh' and adopting it for a while, in scorn of the rest of my family's lack of respect for tradition, until I got my ass torn up for laughing that way (echoing the less than ideal childhood thing).

I remember feeling things SO FUCKING STRONGLY. I remember taking a bath, and my mom walking in and telling me my pet rabbit had died, and not even being able to breathe. I just sank down below the water and held my mouth open and listened to the sounds of the water and felt like my heart was going to explode.

In the kids thinking strange things category: My mother used to bite her arms in front of me (maybe that was the 70's precursor to cutting; I don't know . . . ) and I remember when she started crying and never did it again because I bit my arm and smiled and told her I was going to be just like her. I thought she was sad because I didn't do it right and we couldn't be arm-bitingly paired. I thought all mothers and daughters did this, and that I had failed, and that it explained some of the social dissonance I felt.

Anyway, that's the thing that sticks out--feeling everything so strongly it felt like my heart would collapse on itself like a Vegas casino--that the force of emotion would cause an implosion and actual structural damage.

Going back to my initial statement . . . yeah, I still feel a lot of the same things I felt as a child, simply in less lethal doses. I still feel like I'm not thinking what everyone else is, but not so strongly. I still zone out on things, but not for so long or with such intensity. I think I fried my feel-o-meter at some point, so that's not a constant, but almost everything else maps directly back. I'm still totally socially retarded.

I hate these, but I can't help it . . . MetaFilter: I fried my feel-o-meter!
posted by littlegreenlights at 3:13 PM on December 1, 2004 [3 favorites]

fenriq, the mind processes information at many different levels. Simple events and sensations can be interpreted at a far more complex level at adulthood than they might as a child. We could look at water trickling along the ground during a rainstorm and decide that it's insignificant, or perhaps fascinating. There's a point where we all decide how much of our attention we'll address to a situation; as time progresses, we can even develop our own means of recalling those sensations in retrospect. The swirly, cold rivulets from the rain could reemerge decades later as a sensation of a damp, uneventful afternoon. That's not exclusive to the aging process, but of perception and organization, as we reevaluate what's interesting and improtant at any given moment.
posted by Smart Dalek at 3:15 PM on December 1, 2004

Response by poster: Argh! Only the first sentence was supposed to be FPP, the rest MI. Oy, vey.

I'm not asking about memories of being a kid: I'm asking about the thought processes you remember. I've taken basic psych et al; the texts never do really delve into firsthand memories of how one thought.

It'd be better to ask a kid (and I have) but they don't have the expressive language to really paint a full picture. So memories of thought will have to do.

As for not remembering, I had a head injury a few years back. I suspect it knocked a good chunk of my long-term memory out of my head. OTOH, maybe it didn't. I just don't know.

Anyway, I thought it'd be interesting to hear people's first-hand accounts of what they remember of their internal brainworks. Obviously it's going to be different at different ages; it's the younger kids who I tend to see having an alien thought process.
posted by five fresh fish at 3:19 PM on December 1, 2004

Response by poster: Heh. I do remember bits of adult life. Like spending hours lying on my stomach peering through a magnifying glass looking at lichen. It was a wholly visceral experience: not a whole lot of actual thinking, but a whole lot of absorbing. I'm sure I was like that as a kid, too.
posted by five fresh fish at 3:23 PM on December 1, 2004

Kids do strange things because nobody has told them these things are strange.
posted by kindall at 3:27 PM on December 1, 2004

As a child I remember paying so much attention to detail. I could look at detailed pictures for quite a long time, paying attention to each and every nuance. Everything was new, and needed attention paid to it.

I also remember as a child walking into a room where I thought my grandmother was asleep and it turned out she was really dead. I did not consciously process the fact she was dead, but somehow I KNEW something was wrong and KNEW not to touch her. I was about nine at the time. I did not let myself know she was dead til I overheard my mom call the doctor.

Also, unlike as an adult, it is like my grief for my grandma switched on and off. I could play with my cousins and be perfectly fine. and then all of a sudden it would hit again for a little while. From that experience I believe that children have a mental circuit breaker that trips when needed, when things begin to get too overwhelming for them.
posted by konolia at 3:38 PM on December 1, 2004

ray pretty much breaks it down in the second to last frame of this comic
posted by lotsofno at 3:43 PM on December 1, 2004

I love the stories people are sharing--thanks!

I read incessantly as a kid, and I went through spates of dictating my life internally, as if my brain was writing my autobiography. I would think something like, "The girl walked down the steps pensively" or "He laughed at her discomfort." Sometimes the process was conscious--I wanted to be a writer, after all--and sometimes it would just take over as my automatic internal voice.
posted by equipoise at 3:50 PM on December 1, 2004 [2 favorites]

Of course, I read big words more often than I heard them, so my internal voice was mispronouncing things like mad.
posted by equipoise at 3:54 PM on December 1, 2004

Oo, I had a friend in fourth grade confide to me that she had that "She came into the room" thing going on. I was completely astounded--I read a lot, too, but that had never occurred to me.

I remember that conversation incredibly clearly--it was a summer afternoon, and we were making "perfume" in little plastic bottles out of flower petals, water, and vanilla extract.

She was a really good writer, but later became a chemist; I was not so good a writer, but am a writer today. The "perfume" smelled like rotten flower petals and vanilla extract.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:57 PM on December 1, 2004 [1 favorite]

I also remember two incidents from the schoolbus really vividly:

A) It was October, and I was in second grade. I got onto the schoolbus and took my seat and I realized, all of a sudden, that I was comfortable with my school routine, that I had finally got it down.

B) It was wintertime, and I was in third grade. I got onto the schoolbus and dropped my lunch. My sandwich (chicken roll on white bread, with butter and black pepper) fell out of the paper bag and out of the little waxed-paper sandwich bag and got weird grit in it. I picked it up and crammed it back in the bag. Later, I had to eat it, as I had no money with me for the school lunch and I was incredibly hungry. I remember brushing obvious grime off the thing, while talking happily away and hoping that nobody would notice what I was doing.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:02 PM on December 1, 2004

As far back as I can recall (a couple incidents from 2-3, many vividly from 4+), I thought very much in the same way that I think now, though with less knowledge, complexity, and vocabulary.
posted by rushmc at 4:08 PM on December 1, 2004

You can easily find out what kids are thinking, feeling, etc. by observing their behavior and interpreting what they say. All they lack is the ability to tell you what they're thinking.

Which is a pretty suspect deal to begin with -- I mean, most adults' self-reporting on their thoughts and feelings is pretty bent. Generally, when people say, "you know me, I'm..." you're about to get hit with bullshit. Or when people say "deep down inside, I think I feel..." Shut your ears. People are terrible self-evaluators, generally.

Kids, on the other hand, rarely try. When they do self-report they do so in a fairly straightforward way (that is, it isn't distorted by the pressure of their need to believe certain things about themselves). Their observable behavior is generally transparent if you have the discipline to view it.

It amuses me, in other words, that you think of self-reporting as a reliable source -- or even an interesting one, or anything but a confounding factor.
posted by argybarg at 4:14 PM on December 1, 2004

I wasn't trying to reminisce, I was pointing out that thought processing starts fairly early. I bounced off the porch, it hurt, I stopped doing that.
posted by kamylyon at 4:18 PM on December 1, 2004

I was a pretty analytical unemotional kid, the primary difference in my thought process was that I now realize I had no ability whatsoever to view things from multiple perspectives. If I had worked out that X was correct, then X was correct and I would argue/believe that to the death.

Unfortunately it seems some people don't evolve beyond this, but that's the primary thing I remember about the way I thought between the ages of, say, 4 and 8.
posted by wackybrit at 4:46 PM on December 1, 2004

I was going to answer that I don't remember there being a very big difference between how I think now and how I thought then, save that than I had much less information with which to make my choices, but the posts about an internal narration reminded me of something. I started doing something very similar when I was about eleven years old, and I found it very distressing. I felt like I couldn't just do things anymore, I was always thinking about them. I'd be playing with my brothers and realize I was thinking about each thing I did, where before I would just play, and it seemed like I'd lost something rather than gained by the change. It's not that I didn't think about things before, it was just... less conscious or something. More spontaneous. I was pretty depressed by this for a year or so. It also coincided with several realizations about the kind of person I was becoming, and the fact that I didn't much like the direction I was headed in. Neither of these was the cause of the other, rather they were both effects of some change in my thinking that occurred.
posted by Nothing at 5:15 PM on December 1, 2004

Hmm, I guess that doesn't really answer the question, though, since I didn't describe how I thought before. All I can say is that I was fairly self-absorbed, interested in pretty much everything, easily lulled into a semimeditative state by something I was paying attention too (be it TV or a bug or a word written on a wall), I didn't think much about consequences, and a lot of what I did was more emotionally based than thought based.
posted by Nothing at 5:21 PM on December 1, 2004

Nothing -- what you describe is actually pretty common. It occurs just about at the onset of puberty, when kids go into what Piaget called the age of abstract thought (and what religions call the Age of Reason). It's when you become aware of your consciousness as a separate entity from your physical being. Certainly there can be internal monologue before that happens, but that odd feeling of observing oneself is a function of new brain processes that come about as the brain matures.

I remember being really disturbed by the fact that there were conversations going on in my head, all of a sudden. I mean, I knew that 'hearing voices' was something that happened to crazy people, but this was different. This was something caused by the new hyper-awareness of my own thinking - so the internal monologue started to sound like ' -- Maybe I'll read for a while. -- No! Don't do that! It's still light out, you should call Becky and see if she can play. --No, what you should REALLY do is pick up your room before you step on your records and break them again.' All the separate voices were me, not other people, but it really weirded me out for a while that I could talk to myself. This was the same age that I would occasionally stop in my tracks and try to understand something I had taken for granted all my life -- like, what my name was, and that it referred to me, though the name itself was not me.

As a voracious reader, I also did the "she came into the room" thing -- but that was earlier than the observing-own-thinking thing. Before that, I used my senses more, got lost in the moment more, but stilll thought in words. Most often, those words were "I wonder what would happen if...."
posted by Miko at 5:43 PM on December 1, 2004

In some ways, I thought like I did now, only weirder, and with more cats. And I suppose without so much of the self-observation that says something is weird. I made lots of connections, and metaphors that I didn't always express very well as metaphors. I heard one random fact and would base a huge scenario around it. I would project ideas into a sort of future-retrospective thing (I did this a lot before going to sleep). I also think I tried to imitate how other people thought, like trying to justify why something I liked was really beneficial. I wasn't really trying to convince someone, it was just a process I went through in my head because other people did.

I wanted to know hows and whys of things and hated when adults didn't tell me, hated when they made jokes that went over my head, etc. Up until age 6 or so I was really scared of a lot of adult males, like my uncle or one of my dad's friends, or the picture of Paul McCartney from the White Album because he looked like my dad's friend. My response to this was generally to try and hide in some way.

I find it really really odd the late ages some people say their memory starts at... maybe it's just that I'm still fairly young myself (23) but my memories start around age three, and things starting around age seven I remember pretty normally and I can still relate to many of the things I thought and felt at the time.
posted by dagnyscott at 5:58 PM on December 1, 2004

I'm fascinated to hear that others experienced this "she walked down the stairs" internal narration too. I wonder what gave us the idea? Were we composing sentences in anticipation of writing them down, or did a particular book launch this idea for us?

Sidhevil, you sound like a great writer to me--your description of the perfume-making scene is super-evocative. I gave up on a career as a writer long ago, and my internal narrator has subsided too. (Thank goodness...it felt pretentious even then.)
posted by equipoise at 6:04 PM on December 1, 2004

fff, I think this movie does a very interesting job of illustrating how (some) children think. I recommend it if you haven't seen it.
posted by rushmc at 7:23 PM on December 1, 2004

My thought processes were pretty much the same then as they are now -- a mixture of reasoning and gut (with less information and experience to help guide me). But I DO clearly remember using logical reasoning to work things out.

The major difference between my thought processes than and now (I'm almost 40) is that back then, my parents were constantly in my thoughts. There were these two older people who I wanted to please, whose attention I sought, who made me angry, who I was desperately scared would die or abandon me. Almost everything I did involved them somehow. (I was an only child for the first eleven years of my life.)

I also have very clear -- and odd -- memories, from when I was seven or eight, of being in tears, really crying and howling, and locking myself in the bathroom. While in there, still crying, I looked at myself in the mirror, stopped crying, made silly faces and smiled at myself, and then started crying again. I was fascinated by the fact that I really WAS upset, and yet I could control myself if I wanted to. I remember thinking that I couldn't ever let anyone know I had this ability, because they would never believe I was really upset. The funny thing is, I don't have that ability anymore. I have much less control over my reactions now than I did then.

I remember really being able to get lost in sensations. I could lie in the grass and feel the sun on my face and the wind on my skin. Of course, I can do that now, but it's different somehow. Less profound, less mysterious. In fact, I often feel like the wind (or sun) today is some kind of pale echo of the wind from my childhood.

I remember lying on the sofa, staring down at some little patch of wood on the floor. It seemed so dense. Like a whole world was packed into that little bit of floor.
posted by grumblebee at 7:34 PM on December 1, 2004 [3 favorites]

In childhood, every moment seemed to linger indefinitely; the world seemed to move slowly and has inexorably grown faster and faster with age. This, however, wasn't a good thing -- as a child, internally, I was preternaturally bored, the outside world not able to keep up with the world within, either due to the inability of adults or other kids to keep up, or just the passage of time from day to night being overwhelmingly long. Everyone thought I was hyperactive, while I thought the world was moving at a snail's pace.

Now, as an adult, as days seem to fly by and weeks suddenly turn into years, I realize it's because my mind is less active, more comfortable in the world. I'm no longer as acutely aware of my surroundings, no longer taking in every single detail, I simply coast from hour to hour mostly doing things I'm familiar with, leaving the challenges to a few a day or week.

It's so much nicer to be an adult, honestly.
posted by eschatfische at 7:37 PM on December 1, 2004

I can't remember anything before age 7. I think I just spring from Zeus' forehead.
posted by jackofsaxons at 7:41 PM on December 1, 2004

I also remember my childhood vividly. In fact, thats where my handle 'vacapinta' comes from.

I was maybe a few years old and my uncle had taken me to a farm where I saw cows for the first time. I had never seen anything like this. I had ony seen small animals before this but here was this huge surreal, living, non-human thing. I felt like when people on other continents saw elephants or giraffes for the first time perhaps. In Mexico, these black and white jersey cows are called "painted cows" or a "vaca pinta"

That feeling of strangeness never left me, that just as my small mind felt it was getting a handle on the world, something new and incomprehensible would appear.
posted by vacapinta at 8:29 PM on December 1, 2004

vac: as it still does, though I'm now almost 49...
posted by kamylyon at 8:35 PM on December 1, 2004

btw, the black and white cow aren't Jerseys, they're Holsteins

/me grew up on dairy farms
posted by kamylyon at 8:37 PM on December 1, 2004

Grumblebee, I remember doing the same thing, playing with controlling my emotions. I never felt like I had to hide the ability, but I did wonder if it meant I didn't feel things the same way other people did.

And Dagnyscott, except for being afraid of males, that's very much how I remember thinking as well.

To a large degree, I still have thought processes similar to those I had as a young child. I still follow random associative trains of thought to see where they go. I still build up convoluted metaphorical constructs around things I'm trying to understand. I still create make-believe scenarios around the things I come across in my day to day life. Recently I've spent a lot of my leisure thought trying to figure out how I'd explain a laptop computer to a medieval monk. Things like that. The main difference is I think about a lot of other stuff now too.
posted by Nothing at 9:19 PM on December 1, 2004

I agree with grumblebee that perception was significantly different as a young child. More different than the thought process, at least for me.
posted by rushmc at 11:51 PM on December 1, 2004

Konolia's memory hits home, because I remember my childhood actions being largely instinctual. I "knew" things without comprehending them. Sometimes I was right, sometimes very comically not (like trying to hit an imposing bust at a museum when I was very small because I didn't like the unnatural, stern look of its face). When others mention sensuality, I agree with that too: being spellbound by motes of dust in a ray of sun, textures, sounds.

Here's a memory that sums early childhood for me: When I was four, we visited a family friend's home in a suburb edged by a densely forested area. I wandered outside when no one was looking and started collecting rocks, then walked into the trees, touching things, sniffing around, until quite lost. By the time night fell, I was frightened and crying, but knew I was Gretel and no one could find me. So I did as the illustration in the fairy tale book instructed, and gathered leaves to form a cover over me before I slept at the foot of a tree.

In the morning, I walked until I found a road, which I followed until I came to a single house. Looking at it, I knew again that I was Gretel, and that if I knocked on the door, something bad would be on the other side. I can't explain the force of that knowing. It kept a thirsty, frightened child from obvious shelter and help. The regret I felt walking away was awful, but I knew that I must. What was that instinct about? Was it pointless? I'll never know, because I turned and walked the other way, and my memories, for all their vividness, are fractured.

Eventually, I came to another house, this one with a swingset in the yard and one of those oval half-shell jungle gyms for kids to climb on. I knew this house was okay the same way I knew the other wasn't. But I was thoroughly afraid by then, and being small enough to climb inside the thing, I did just that, and wailed my head off. A woman holding a child came out, and I'll never forget the look on her face when she found me. She couldn't coax me out, so she fed me pretzels and water through the gym while more of her kids turned up to stare at me. More fractures, then lots and lots of police cars, and that's where the memory fades.

That's it, for me, the thing that sums childhood and all its strangeness. I am lost, I am uncomprehending, but there are things I know without understanding how, and things I've learned from the strange stories I have been told, and things that I physically feel that are far more powerful than rational thought. Such early memories are based in the physical and instinctual, so accessing them is more about returning to a state of feeling than of thought. And things can be raw there, and fearsome, so many adults develop a protective cover against returning to them.

I've read about childhood development, and thought about these things as an adult does, but that language does not address the feeling. Only stories do, especially myths and fairy tales. They are such strange things, but they make a deep, resonant emotional sense. That was the sense that guided me when I was so little.
posted by melissa may at 12:40 AM on December 2, 2004 [14 favorites]

The one thing I remember clearly, from the age of about 5 or 6, is thinking "When I'm older, I HAVE to remember that I think this way, so that I can relate to kids well." Seriously. Maybe not phrased like that, but yeah. That, and that everything, EVERYTHING, was cool. One of my favorite toys was getting mom's extra tax forms to play with every year.

I managed to hold onto it for a while... "Mud is fascinating! Rocks look like candy! I am a dentist! This leaf is a bandaid for your broken leg! I'm dead, cool! I want to be in the army when I grow up! The air above the stove is fuzzy, I wonder why! I'm going to write my initials on the wall so archeololologists can find them! 100 is a HUUUMONGOUS number!"

...but, like all cynical teens, I lost it. Do you know where I can buy it back?
posted by stray at 1:04 AM on December 2, 2004 [4 favorites]

...but, like all cynical teens, I lost it. Do you know where I can buy it back?

It's not for sale, you either retain it, or you don't.

Having been there (lost, cynical, unimaginative) I can say that you may find it again in a few years, but probably not if you're looking for it.
posted by kamylyon at 3:18 AM on December 2, 2004

I remember being very young and wondering why some adults became so stupid around children (baby talk), but maybe I was an odd child? I was thinking about things constantly, but wasn't able to express myself well, so I often felt misunderstood.

I also remember cursing a lot, but not with words, though the same feelings are now associated with several colorful words I try not to use too much. My sister was more talkative--she cursed with numbers. Often it was too difficult to try and explain what I was thinking, so the easiest way to get the desired result was to cry/throw a tantrum.

As I got older, much of my thoughts were devoted to story-telling, shared or not. Anything could lead to an elaborate fairy-tale kind of universe in my head. A significant portion was devoted to "getting even" with my sister. A lot of thought went to how to get a laugh or an "eeew" from friends and family.

I find it difficult to try and put into words, because the words weren't there to be associated with the thoughts. Things were more instinctual, experiment-oriented, and it was like "talking" to everything (translated into words, it might be like, "Hello Spoon. What are you? What can you do?").

I am really surprised that some people can't remember their childhood. There are many memories in my head from the age of pre-school and on, but before then they are more fragmented and sensory oriented.

The 3rd-person internal narration is really interesting. I don't recall ever doing that, but I did develop a kind of dialogue with my future self or with imaginary potential descendants.
posted by MightyNez at 3:38 AM on December 2, 2004

It's not to late to be like a kid, fff. Do meditation or tai chi or something that stills your conscious mind and puts you back in the moment. Go see I ♥ Huckabees and then get someone to bash you in the face unexpectedly with a soft object.

You can find paths anywhere. Read a paraphrasing of Kirkegaard that explains that we live in this mental world of our own ideas, we're so wrapped up in our own mental paradigms that, when we see someone or something, we see only our own mental model of it, not the reality ... "The Tao that can be written is not the true Tao..." You see? It's all the same. Kirkegaard tried to confuse people into stop making sense, too, so they would fall back into the reality of things, in a fashion similar to Socrates' method of teaching.

To experience without abstraction is to sense the world;
To experience with abstraction is to know the world.

Even the finest teaching is not the Tao itself.
Even the finest name is insufficient to define it.
Without words, the Tao can be experienced,
and without a name, it can be known.

Anyway, it's there. Just look for it. Look inside, not out.
posted by Shane at 7:11 AM on December 2, 2004 [1 favorite]

I had an abnormal childhood, which has left me with lots of vivid memories-- many of them feelings. I was sexually molested for a time when I was four. He said if I ever told, both my parents and I would be killed. So I had to grow up very fast and learn to keep secrets. My overwhelming memory of the sexual act itself is-- resignation and a feeling of disgust when I would wash myself afterwards.

My mother had a very quick temper and frequently used corporal punishment. My memories are often tied to major punishments-- first time she used a belt, when she stopped slapping me in the face because I flinched every time she touched me, etc. My overwhelming feeling from say...5 to 15 is angst. I agonized over every decision and over thought everything I did. Will she be mad if I do A or if I do B? Is this the right way or is this? Probably turned me into the little perfectionist I am today.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:51 AM on December 2, 2004 [1 favorite]

The only thought process I remember as a child was sparked by watching "Somewhere in Time" with my mom. In the movie, Richard Collier surrounds himself in 1920s memorabilia, goes to a place that existed in the era, and basically convince himself back in time.

Well, not only did I believe as gospel truth that someone could wish himself to another time period, it seemed to me that people could convince themselves to do almost anything if they truly believed. My personal theory was that I could walk off the coffee table and continue walking across the air if I sufficiently convinced myself that it was possible. I sat around and actively told myself that I could walk off the coffee table, I could, I could...

In my teen years, I had this niggling wonderment about it- I couldn't remember if I had dreamed that I could walk off the coffee table and into the air, or if I'd actually done it. Now that I'm grown, it's obvious I didn't. I do find it interesting that I had convinced myself at one point that the gravity-defying walk actually took place, it was just a question of whether it was a dream or real.

So, I guess that as adults, we can get an idea of how children think but we can't really comprehend it, because our heads are so full of fact now that we can't relate to a mind completely empty and open to all possibilities. Kinda like thinking about how big infinity is- you know it's out there, but damned if you don't get a headache trying not to put bounds on the absolute boundlessness of it.
posted by headspace at 8:06 AM on December 2, 2004

That's a good example, Alt F4. When my daughter was about 3 1/2, I took her to the circus, and she was utterly unimpressed. She'd seen animals at the zoo, and she'd seen adults do amazing things all the time, so what's the big deal?
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:49 AM on December 2, 2004

I remember having an internal monologue as early as kindergarden, where the first day I said something mean to the girl next to me and had the clear thought, "Why am I being mean? She's pretty."

Also, there was a sign on the door that said something like "Teacher on duty," which I assumed meant she was on the crapper. (I started reading at 3.)
posted by callmejay at 10:47 AM on December 2, 2004

I remember being eleven and suddenly becoming aware that I could hold long logical trains of thought in my head - I remember the very moment, where I was, what I was looking at, when I realized that my brain had this awesome new power for problem solving, for abstracting observations I'd made, manipulating them to get a useful conclusion. I was just boggled by my newfound mental power.

This was Piagetian object relations stuff, as I discovered a few days later in the school library.

I never stopped being fascinated with the powers and properties of the mind and brain.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:57 AM on December 2, 2004

Response by poster: It's not to late to be like a kid, fff

I've never stopped being a kid...
posted by five fresh fish at 12:16 PM on December 2, 2004

Response by poster: konolia: "From that experience I believe that children have a mental circuit breaker that trips when needed, when things begin to get too overwhelming for them."

From my experiences of funerals (or, rather, post-funeral get-togethers), adults have the same safety breaker.

argybarg: It amuses me, in other words, that you think of self-reporting as a reliable source -- or even an interesting one, or anything but a confounding factor.

Well aren't you special and superior! I apologise for having made your eyes burn from reading such bullshit.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:41 PM on December 2, 2004

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