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Seeing (and Learning)

In one sense, a newborn's experience is very similar to the opposite experience of miniaturizing an adult and thrusting him into a dark moist womb where nothing is recognizable i.e. tissues, blood vessels, nerves, and as if being in an alien land. Thus, there is indeed a qualitative difference between being stupid and disoriented and being totally unfamiliar with one's environment.

Then consider a newborn shunted and cast out into the delivery room with brilliant lights stinging his eyes and exposing him to a “sea” of unrecognizable imagery and potpourri of figures and grounds----so utterly different from his prior dark 9 month womb quarters--the site of his first public appearance---where the new born has never before experienced light, shapes, colors, textures, smells, distances, directions, objects and a meaningless cacophony of noise without any hint at what faces him. Figure and ground are enmeshed in a giant visual and auditory blur. Nothing in this new environment poses meaning nor is self-explanatory. It is all nonsensical, painful, traumatic, scary and yet inescapable.

Being born is slightly akin to a sighted American being dumped weightless into a giant dark empty rotating bin with Japanese characters on all sides and with absolutely nothing being familiar or recognizable. His eyes may "work”l--- but nothing seen makes sense. One cannot rivet nor anchor the senses on anything. There is yet no frame of reference. This experience vastly precedes the discovery of concepts — as even before the newborn learns of self, mother, mother's breasts or even Mama's unique smell, warmth and milk onto which he will soon be imprinted.

From a pragmatic point of view, the newborn first experiences brightness and a rush of sound until he feels for the first time the warmth of his mother; the security that prevents his falling and the sweet milk from her breast being the first thing he swallows. Of course the infant has no names (handles) for these things so that nothing makes sense except for what he repeatedly feels, tastes, smells and observes without any lexicon and without even knowing that there is such a thing as language and that the giant beings around him have ways to render what the eye sees and what the ear hears as meaningful. His mother with her warmth, her arms and breasts and face become his new total environment in the first few hours, but no one can nor will explain how or why. His eyes may be 20/10, but without points of recognition, nothing among the sea of brightness and random stimulation registers nor makes sense.

Those who fail to appreciate that an infant must learn to see before he can learn to speak, presume that the infant's eyes cannot see when it is his brain that cannot see, because one must know to see and see to know and those not "attuned into” visual, visual and linguistic development can hardly begin to understand what infants go through any more than others do not understand prosopagnosia or the inability of adults to recognize faces. Doctors, to be sure, study diseases, but not epistemology, nor the fine nuances of linguistic and conceptual development and its interconnection and interrelationship with sight, figure ground differentiation, etc.

In one sense, observers in delivery rooms often assume that infants can see only shadows and fuzzy objects. While these infants are born with a “blank slate” i.e. having nothing within their brains to compare with what their eyes see and having absolutely no context nor perspective to draw from. It is not that they are “stupid” but that they have not yet learned to see. In one sense, humans are among the most gradual to develop and being self sufficient unlike a young fawn born that can stand up and walk seconds after birth. Humans have so much much more to learn - especially considering that almost everything that they will come to know, comes with a name—and this includes not only nouns but also verbs, pronouns, property names, adjectives and prepositions.

It is most interesting that an infant learns to know his mother within days if not hours and recognizes family versus strangers within his first year of life. And yet adults, who late in life become equipped to see, can never learn to recognize faces because that can only be learned as an infant. That fact alone may help us to realize the amazing learning curve of an infant the first year of his life.