What Do Preschoolers Learn from Fantastical Picture Books?

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One of the new picture books making the bedtime rounds at our house is How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?, which describes and depicts dinosaurs doing such un-dinosaurly things as tucking themselves into bed or kissing their human mothers good night. The book is whimsical, gorgeously illustrated, and includes a scientific angle, as the genus names of the dinosaurs are included in the pictures. I’m always careful to read these genus names aloud as we look at each picture. But is this book actually teaching my daughter anything about dinosaurs? And does the misinformation get in the way of her learning these facts? A new study suggests that it might.

Picture books that anthropomorphize animals – and even inanimate objects – are the norm rather than the exception. These books are whimsical and fanciful. They depict worlds like our own but different in magical ways that delight children and adults alike. Perhaps these books are more engaging for young children, fostering lifelong reading habits. Perhaps they stimulate a child’s blossoming imagination. Perhaps – although I would argue that the true story of our diverse, teeming planet is more remarkable than talking teddy bears or hippos in swimsuits.

Look at it this way: everything we do is meant to prepare our children for life in this complex and befuddling world. Why, then, do we feed them so much distorted, inaccurate information? How are they supposed to know what is real and what is fantasy? How is my daughter supposed to know that the three-horned dinosaur was called Triceratops but that it never coexisted with humans nor stomped on its hind legs to protest bedtime?

Researchers in Boston and Toronto looked into this issue and recently published their findings in Frontiers in Psychology. The scientists created picture books based on three animals species that are relatively unknown among North American children: cavies, oxpeckers, and handfish. Their study consisted of two separate experiments. For the first experiment, all of the books featured factual illustrations of the animals, but for each animal the authors made one version of the book with realistic text and one version with text that depicted the animals as human-like. Here are two examples:

Lonely cavy seeks companionship and good conversation.

Lonely cavy seeks companionship and good conversation.

Realistic
When the mother cavy wakes up, she usually eats lots of grass and other plants.
Then the mother cavy feeds her baby cavies.
Mother cavy also licks the babies’ fur to keep them clean.
Mother cavy and her babies spend the rest of the day lying in the sun.
At night, they sleep in a small cave.
After they go to sleep, mother cavy’s big ears help her hear noises around her.

Anthropomorphic
“Yum, those grass and plants are delicious!” Mother cavy thinks as she eats her breakfast.
“I will feed some to my baby cavies too!” she says.
The baby cavies love to play in the grass! But they’ve gotten all dirty! “Time for your bath,” Mother cavy says.
Mother cavy and her babies like to spend the afternoon sunbathing.
At night, Mother cavy tucks her babies in to bed in a small cave. “Mom, I’m scared!” says the baby cavy.
“Don’t be afraid,” she says. “I’ll listen for noises with my big ears and keep us safe.”

Children ages 3 to 5 years old were randomly assigned to read the books with either the factual or fantasy text. After children read one of these books with an experimenter, a second experimenter showed them a picture of the real animal described the story and asked the kids questions about it. Do cavies eat grass? Do cavies talk? Some of these questions tested the factual information kids took away from the picture book, while others tested how much the children anthropomorphized the animal. The children who read the books with talking animals were more likely to say those animals really talk than were children who read the versions with factual text. Still, the two groups were roughly equal in the factual information they retained about the animals.

Oxpeckers ready for adventure.

Oxpeckers ready for adventure.

For the second experiment, the researchers again made two versions of picture books for each animal. This time, both versions showed the animals dressed in clothes, sitting at tables, or engaged in other human activities. As before, the researchers made two versions of each book: one with factual text and one that anthropomorphized the animals. The children who read the fully anthropomorphized picture books tended to believe that the animals really engage in human behaviors like speech. These kids also answered fewer factual questions about the animals correctly (compared with the children who read factual text paired with the fantastical pictures).

These findings have two major implications. First, picture books that anthropomorphize animals seem to actually teach children that animals think and behave like humans. In one sense you might say this is good, as it could discourage animal cruelty and abuse. But in another sense, it’s highly unproductive. At the very best, children will have to unlearn all of this nonsense. At worst, they will carry some of this misinformation about the natural world throughout life – probably not as a belief in talking animals, but in the assumptions they make about the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of other species.

The other takeaway is that the whimsical aspects of a picture book may be sabotaging your child’s learning of the real information in these stories, particularly when the illustrations and text both reflect fantasy.  Since children can’t conclusively tell fact from fiction, some may be discounting all information from highly fanciful stories – including incredible-yet-true facts like the chameleon’s mercurial skin tone or the transformation of caterpillar into butterfly. As the authors write in their paper: “if the goal of the picture book interaction is to teach children information about the world, it is best to use books that depict the world in a realistic rather than fantastical manner.” Of course that takes enthusiasm out of the equation. What kid would sit for hours watching videos of real trains when he or she could watch Thomas? Human narrative adds interest, but it also seems to muddle up real learning, at least in preschoolers.

I hate to build an argument against imaginative, fanciful picture books. What am I, Scrooge? But while I love imagination, I don’t love misinformation – particularly scientific misinformation. And while I love magic, I don’t love magical thinking or flawed reasoning about the natural world. I’m not saying you should throw away your copy of Goodnight Moon and all things Sandra Boynton – just keep in mind that wee ones don’t always know real from fanciful or facetious. Talk about these concepts with them. Buy some nonfiction picture books with accurate information about animals and keep them in the lineup. And know that, for all your efforts, they may come away believing that trains talk and bunnies knit . . . at least for now.

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Photo credits:  Mother and child by KatLevPhoto, cropped for use here; cavy by Brent Moore; oxpeckers by Steve Garvie. All used via Creative Commons license

Ganea, P., Canfield, C., Simons Ghafari, K., & Chou, T. (2014). Do cavies talk? The effect of anthropomorphic picture books on children’s knowledge about animals Frontiers in Psychology, 5 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00283

Cuddling Up with a Scimoir

1688897198_28302e8ce6_oYou might call it a Frankenstein genre – two quite different literary genres stitched together and brought to life. For the moment, I am calling it the scimoir. The rare science memoir can be found tucked away in the Science section, in Memoir or Biography, even sometimes in Health, Psychology, or Self Help. It defies categorization, flummoxing librarians and booksellers alike. Science and memoir, memoir and science. It just doesn’t seem right.

At first glance the two genres seem incompatible. Science is the study of the immutable and absolute while memoir is the most personal and subjective of all genres. Yet somehow they can go together, and when done well, they resonate with honesty and relevance. They tame each other. Memoir reminds us that the whirring mechanics of science play out on the scale of our individual lives, while science reminds us that the memoirists’ struggles and stories reflect something of the universal. Moreover, the drama of memoir adds the narrative kick that science writing so desperately needs. It’s a match made in genre heaven.

Why am I waxing poetic about a literary genre? I suppose because I recently discovered that I’m drawn to this combination, both as a blogger and as a reader. The majority of my posts are amalgamations of personal experience and scientific theory. This was never my intent; somehow the combination fell out of my interests and whatever spark motivated me to write about a given topic. I’ve also discovered that I’ve read and enjoyed a number of scimoirs, even though I didn’t consciously seek them out and scimoirs are none too common.

In point of fact, I shouldn’t be surprised that book-length scimoirs are relatively rare. To write a compelling one, an author generally has to be a scientist or science writer who has also personally experienced something dramatic that is relevant to the topic. You might be both a leading researcher and lifelong sufferer of a particular illness, like Kay Redfield Jamison in An Unquiet Mind. You might be the researcher behind an infamous experiment, like Philip Zimbardo in The Lucifer Effect. Or you might be able to approach the topic through your experience with ailing relatives. In Mapping Fate, Alice Wexler wrote about her mother’s battle with Huntington’s disease and her sister’s scientific quest to isolate the culprit gene. In Acquainted with the Night, the science writer Paul Raeburn documented his children’s struggles with mental illness in the context of the current state of juvenile psychiatric knowledge and treatment.

I am on a quest to identify other books in this wonderful Franken-genre and I need your help. Here are the other scimoirs I can think of that I’ve already read (aside from those listed above): My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, The Double Helix by James Watson, A Primate’s Memoir by Robert Sapolsky, and several of Oliver Sacks’s books. I’ve come across a few more that I plan to read: Memoirs of an Addicted Brain by Marc Lewis, Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer, and What Mad Pursuit by Francis Crick.

Please let me know what other scimoirs you’ve read, want to read, or simply know are out there. And do share any other ideas for naming the genre. Scimoir sounds like a half-android, half-alien monster, and who wants to cuddle up with that?

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Photo credit: Karoly Czifra

The End of History

Intersection 12-12-12 Day 347 G+ 365 Project 12 December 2012I just read a wonderful little article about how we think about ourselves. The paper, which came out in January, opens with a tantalizing paragraph that I simply have to share:

“At every stage of life, people make decisions that profoundly influence the lives of the people they will become—and when they finally become those people, they aren’t always thrilled about it. Young adults pay to remove the tattoos that teenagers paid to get, middle-aged adults rush to divorce the people whom young adults rushed to marry, and older adults visit health spas to lose what middle-aged adults visited restaurants to gain. Why do people so often make decisions that their future selves regret?”

To answer this question, the study’s authors recruited nearly 20,000 participants from the website of “a popular television show.” (I personally think they should have told us which one. I’d imagine there are differences between the people who flock to the websites for Oprah, The Nightly News, or, say, Jersey Shore.)

The study subjects ranged in age from 18 to 68 years of age. For the experiment, they had to fill out an online questionnaire about their current personality, core values, or personal preferences (such as favorite food). Half of the subjects—those in the reporter group—were then asked to report how they would have filled out the questionnaire ten years prior, while the other half—those in the predictor group—were asked to predict how they will fill it out ten years hence. For each subject, the authors computed the difference between the subject’s responses for his current self and those for his reported past self or predicted future self. And here’s the clever part: they could compare participants across ages. For example, they could compare how an 18-year-old’s prediction of his 28-year-old future self differed from a 28-year-old’s report of his 18-year-old self. It sounds crazy, but they did some great follow up studies to make sure the comparison was valid.

The results show a remarkable pattern. People believe that they have changed considerably in the past, even while they expect to change little in the future. And while they tend to be pretty accurate in their assessment of how much they’ve changed in years passed, they are grossly underestimating how much they will change in the coming years. The authors call this effect The End of History Illusion. And it’s not just found in shortsighted teenagers or twenty-somethings. While the study showed that older people do change less than younger people, they still underestimate how much they will continue to change in the decade to come.

The End of History Illusion is interesting in its own right. Why are we so illogical when reasoning about ourselves – and particularly, our own minds? We all understand that we will change physically as we age, both in how well our bodies function and how they look to others. Yet we deny the continued evolution (or devolution) of our traits, values, and preferences. We live each day as though we have finally achieved our ultimate selves. It is, in some ways, a depressing outlook. As much as we may like ourselves now, wouldn’t it be more heartening to believe that we will keep growing and improving as human beings?

The End of History Illusion also comes with a cost. We are constantly making flawed decisions for our future selves. As the paper’s opening paragraph illustrated, we take actions today under the assumption that our future desires and needs won’t change. In a follow up study, the authors even demonstrate this effect by showing that people would be willing to pay an average of $129 now to see a concert by their favorite band in ten years, while they would only be willing to pay an average of $80 now to see a concert by their favorite band from ten years back. Here, the illusion will only cost us money. In real life, it could cost us our health, our families, our future well-being.

This study reminded me of a book I read a while back called Stumbling on Happiness (written, it turns out, by the second author on this paper). The book’s central thesis is that we are bad at predicting what will make us happy and the whole thing is written in the delightful style of this paper’s opening paragraph. For those of you with the time, it’s worth a read. For those of you without time, I can only hope you’ll have more time in the future. With any luck we’ll all have more – more insight, more compassion, more happiness—in the decade to come.

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Photo credit: Darla Hueske

ResearchBlogging.org

Quoidbach J, Gilbert DT, & Wilson TD (2013). TheEnd of History Illusion Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1229294

Locked Away

The results are in. The ultrasound was conclusive. And despite my previously described hunch that our growing baby is a boy, she turned out to be a girl. We are, of course, ecstatic. A healthy baby and a girl to boot! As everyone tells us, girls are simply more fun.

As I was reading in my pregnancy book the other day, I came across an interesting bit of trivia about baby girls. At this point in my pregnancy (nearly 6 months in), our baby’s ovaries contain all the eggs she’ll have for her entire life. As I mentioned in a prior post, the fact that a female fetus develops her lifetime supply of eggs in utero represents a remarkable transgenerational link. In essence, half of the genetic material that makes up my growing baby already existed inside my mother when she was pregnant. And now, inside me, exists half of the genetic material that will become all of the grandchildren I will ever have. This is the kind of link that seems to mix science and spirituality, that reminds us that, though we are a mere cluster of cells, there’s a poetry to the language of biology and Life.

But after stumbling upon this factoid about our baby’s eggs, I was also struck by a sense that somewhere someone seemed to have his or her priorities mixed up. If our baby were born today, she would have a slim chance of surviving. Her intestines, cerebral blood vessels, and retinas are immature and not ready for life outside the womb. Worse still, the only shot her lungs would have at functioning is with the aid of extreme medical intervention. The order of it all seems crazy. My baby is equipped with everything she’ll need to reproduce decades in the future, yet she lacks the lung development to make it five minutes in the outside world. What was biology thinking?

Then I remembered two delightful popular science books I’d read recently, The Red Queen by Matt Ridley and Life Ascending by Nick Lane. Both described the Red Queen Hypothesis of the evolution of sex, which states that the reason so much of the animal kingdom reproduces sexually (rather than just making clones of itself) is to ‘outwit’ parasites. In short, if each generation of humans were the same as the next, parasites large and microbial could evolve to overtake us. By mixing up our genetic makeup through sexual reproduction, we make it harder for illnesses to wipe us out. Like the Red Queen from Lewis Carroll’s classic, we keep running in order to stay in the same place (which is one step ahead of parasites and disease).

Just as there are parasitic organisms and bacteria, one might say that there are parasitic genes. For example, mutations in the DNA of our own replicating cells can cause cancer, which is essentially a self-made, genetic parasite. Moreover, retroviruses like HIV are essentially bits of genetic material that invade our bodies and can insert themselves into the DNA of our cells. And the ultimate road to immortality for a parasitic gene would be to hitch a ride on the back of reproduction. Imagine what an easy life that would be! If a retrovirus could invade the eggs in the ovaries, it would be passed on from one generation to the next without doing one iota of work. It’s the holy grail of parasitic invasion – get thee to the ovaries! According to Matt Ridley in another of his books, The Origins of Virtue, the human germ line is segregated from the rest of the growing embryo by 56 days after fertilization. Within two months of conception, the cells that will give rise to all of the embryo’s eggs (or sperm, in males) are already cordoned off. They are kept safe until they are needed many years in the future.

So perhaps my little baby’s development isn’t as backwards as it seemed at first. Yes, lungs are important. But when you’ve got something of value to others, it makes practical sense to hurry up and lock it away.

Jaded

In December 2008, I stared up at one of the great marvels of the world, the gleaming Taj Mahal. And I felt – nothing. Curiosity about its fabled history, yes. But other than that, all I felt was ambivalence about posing for pictures in its imposing foreground and a certain reluctance to leave my shoes unattended as I toured the palace itself.

I should have been awestruck. The Taj Mahal is stunning, a brilliant feat of engineering and craftsmanship, design and artistic grandeur. But the problem was, this wasn’t the first time I’d seen it, or even the second. Over the years, I’d seen the iconic structure in countless photographs, documentaries, and movies. By 2008, I’d encountered the great edifice so many times from the comfort of my couch that now, having traveled halfway around the world to gaze upon it, I was wondering what we would have for lunch.

It’s shameful, I know. But I suspect I’m not the only guilty one.

Recently, a friend told me why she couldn’t stand modern literature. “I hate the descriptions,” she said. “They’re flowery and over-blown and just plain weird.” Although I enjoy contemporary fiction, I knew what she was referring to. While authors of the past could devote full paragraphs to describing fields in bloom or dank urban alleys, they generally used concrete, sensible words. Contemporary writers tend to rely heavily on metaphors, or else they describe things in odd, non-literal ways. In her novel A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore uses the term “a papery caramel of leaves” to describe the wet waste that lined the roads. Whoever thought of soggy, caked leaves as caramel? And yet I think the description gives us something – a sense of color, of texture, and a fresh perspective.

It occurred to me that modern writers are faced with an interesting challenge, namely jaded readers who have seen (if not experienced) it all. Readers like me who can look upon the Taj Mahal without being awestruck. Not only are we more well-traveled than days of yore, but we’re exposed to places all over the world by way of screens large and small. In movies and through television we have seen rainforests and polar expeditions, villages from Scotland to Africa to Guatemala, Texas rodeos, Manhattan sex clubs, Roman amphitheaters, ocean floors, mountain peaks, and even the surface of the moon. No wonder we’re jaded. And no wonder fiction writers today have to sweat and toil to describe the world in a different way if we are to take note of it at all.

I’m torn about the vicarious exposure we get to our world through TV and movies. It’s a strange sort of life without living, experience that is like reality without actually being real. On the one hand, it gives us access to other places, times, and ways of life, showing us things we may never otherwise see. It can educate us, but I think it also steals something from us – the freshness and newness of discovery. I don’t want to be jaded, so I’m going to take this as a challenge. I’m going to push myself to experience each new surrounding fully, to open my eyes and look. More than that, I’m going to challenge myself to touch, taste, and smell the world around me. As yet, technology doesn’t stimulate those senses in our living rooms and movie theaters, which means the real world has got that market cornered.

Science and Literature: Strange Bedfellows?

Something I’ve been thinking about lately: what do science and literature have in common? On the face of it, nothing. One is dedicated to making stuff up; the other is all about not making stuff up. I would have abandoned the question, or probably wouldn’t have asked it at all, if it weren’t for the fact that these two fields have been the intellectual passions of my life. Am I a splintered human being, or is there something that unites them?

Science is fundamentally a list of rules, like a lengthy version of the Ten Commandments. However, these rules dictate, down to the most minute of scales, how our universe IS. And as boring or unintuitive as each rule may be, their interplay and repercussions are stunning. I think scientists are drawn to the field because they appreciate this beauty and because they want to uncover a new, equally beautiful truth that has never been known before. Maybe every scientist is Moses; certainly there are some who think they are.

Moses Complex aside, I believe that fiction tugs on authors for the same reason that science lures scientists. And in some ways, the fields serve the same purpose. I know, I know – pipe down, you scientists. It’s true. Good literature should put us inside thoughts and situations we haven’t imagined and provide perspectives that reality doesn’t afford. In doing so, it should reveal its own beautiful truths. Why? Because we don’t always see truth through truth; sometimes it takes fiction to make us understand.

Recommendation and Regret

I couldn’t sleep last night and it was all Lowboy’s fault.

I was reading the novel Lowboy by John Wray. Click here for its review in the New York Times.

The book is about a 16-year old boy with schizophrenia on the run in the New York subway system. It’s a fantastic read – fast-paced yet poetic, and short enough to consume in a few days.

One of the interesting footnotes about this book is that the author wrote most of it on the NY subway line while listening to heavy metal guitar. Another is that he did a unique (albeit slightly awkward) reading from the book to other passengers on the train. Here’s a great interview of the author in a recent NPR podcast.

So that was my recommendation. Now for the regret.

The driving force of the novel is the threat of violence. The main character of the novel, Will Heller (a.k.a. Lowboy), has nearly killed someone before, has attacked others, and is now unmedicated and on the loose in public. I enjoyed the book immensely, but I couldn’t help feeling sad that it reinforced the public misconception that people with schizophrenia are violent.

This is not a criticism of the book; literature isn’t and shouldn’t be a public service announcement. A doctor in the novel even mentions that most patients with schizophrenia aren’t violent. Still, the young patient in this story is transformed into a terrifying figure.

Groups like NAMI and NIMH need to continue educating people about mental illness. The public needs to know that most people with schizophrenia aren’t violent and most violent people don’t have schizophrenia.

If patients are going to find treatment and recover, they’ll need the support of people in their lives. They will need our kindness, not our fear.

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