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East Asia Child Science Exchange Program: Is a Child's Lie a Real Lie? -- Power of Talk

Presented at the 3rd Conference of East Asia Child Science Exchange Program Hangzhou College of Preschool Teacher Education, Zhejiang Normal University Zhejiang, China, November 1, 2008


Cognitive revolution in a 10-month-old baby

My presentation today has three parts. First, I will explain the mechanism of creative imagination. Second, I will discuss whether a child's lie is a real lie in the way adults think. Third, I will verify that children's efforts to try to convey meaning in the act of talking will produce a kind of lie.

Now let me explain the mechanism of creative imagination.

In terms of cognitive development, a child undergoes significant change twice in early childhood. The first change will occur when a child becomes 10 months old, for which I have coined the term to describe this change "primary cognitive revolution."

In the brain of a 10-month-old baby, first of all, the ability of processing images appears. The hippocampus which belongs to the cerebral limbic system becomes activated, thus generating a memory function. This part of the brain is involved in emotions and stress induced by human relationships, and starts being activated when a child reaches this age.

Along with these developments of memory and imagining abilities, a child's brain starts to identify objects. A 10-month-old child is able to retain an image of things, recognizing that these things exist even if they are out of sight.

In this period, a child will often exhibit a certain behavior called "social referencing," an act of referring to others. For example, when a baby in its mother's arms sees a dog coming, the child is surprised. Then, the baby will more than likely ask the mother "What is it?" This act is the social referencing.

Processing experience as base material

Now, let me start to explain the mechanism of creative imagination. This is an ability to imagine things you cannot see and picture them in your mind.

To build an image of things in our mind, we need some base materials. For children, they use actual experiences accumulated in their daily lives, experiences acquired through their five senses. Therefore, they rely on their experiences to build an image, but this image will not be completely the same as the experience itself. While a child retrieves some experiences from memories and links them to each other to make a reasonable story or a meaningful context as a whole, the child will invariably add something new. This is the point at which the possibility of creativity is born.

I will give you an illustration to explain how images start to differentiate as a child's experience increases year on year. I put out three cards in front of two children, who were two years and five months and three years and eight months, and asked both to tell me stories from the pictures. The result of this experiment shows the difference in the ability to imagine between the two children (see the figure below).

The two-year-and-five-month-old child described the first card as follows: "Bunny, hop, hop." The second card was accompanied by the following lines and pointing at the picture of a stone: "Ouch! Tripped. Stone! Tripped." For the last card, the child rubbed his eyes, pretending to be crying: "Boo-hoo-hoo, bunny, boo-hoo-hoo!"

On the other hand, the three-year-and-eight-month-old, whose development is one year and three months more advanced than the younger child, made a story like this: "A bunny is happy and is dancing, looking at the moon...It looked up too much and fell over a rock, fell on its bottom...It got wet all over, so the bunny started crying."


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The sentences in green are the parts where the child processed the events which are not displayed on the card, by retrieving past experience in memories to interpret these pictures, and incorporating the interpretation into the imaginary story.

At this point, I will summarize the difference between "memory" and "imagination."

The basic material for both memory and imagination is experience. Trying not to change the manner of events, nor use analogical reasoning, nor draw causal inference, but just retrieving experience is called memory. As a result, only knowledge is reproduced. That is to say, experience extracted without change is a "memory."

In contrast, "imagination" is produced by building up visual or linguistic images through various kinds of processing activities, such as retrieving the past experience from memories, using analogical reasoning, or drawing causal inference. Thus, imagination is a creative representation or creative imagining.

Mechanism of fundamental analogical reasoning

In such a processing stage, analogical reasoning is a particularly important tool to generate new knowledge. If our brain reproduced past experiences without change, we would be only living in the past. To move forward into the future, we should generate new knowledge. Human beings tend to think inductively, based on past experiences, while at the same time absorbing new information. This is the mechanism of analogical reasoning.

Children are, no matter how young, always conducting analogical reasoning in their own way. I will show you some examples here.

A little boy came back home one day, being touched by the beautiful afterglow of the sunset. He ate his dinner and then took a bath. When he opened the window of the bathroom, he saw a full moon. To him, the reddish full moon looked like a condensed clump of the sunset glow he had just seen. At that very moment, he exclaimed, "a clot of sunset!"

Another example is of a four-year-old girl. She often wonders about clouds, why they change shapes, sometimes disappear, and even cover up the entire sky, just as she had seen that very day. Who on earth makes these clouds? Then, one day, she saw a factory chimney billowing white smoke into the blue sky, and said "I understand where clouds are made!" She made sense of her question in her four-year-old way.

Another six-year-old girl, one day attending a funeral, talked to her mother in a hushed tone, "Mommy, I found out that the panda is not a happy animal!" It is a tradition in Japan to stretch a black-and-white striped curtain around the room where a funeral wake or funeral ceremony takes place. This child's comment arose from the fact that the girl noticed the resemblance between the panda, a favorite animal among many children, and the funeral curtain with its black and white color pattern.

In this way, children always link their past experience to events that occur before their eyes, and extract differences and commonalities between them. This is how they speak by using analogical reasoning.

Such mechanisms create a new imaginary world through analogical reasoning and causal inference that helps human beings to keep advancing into the future and constantly generate new knowledge.

A lie born from the process of memory modification

What I have explained just now is a mechanism of imagination, where new knowledge is created by linking the events that have just occurred to memories of past experience. Now I will verify whether a child's lie is a real lie or not.

In the speech of children, the order of reporting sometimes changes. If a certain event occurs, the sequence of the event is very important. I will show you one example.

A little boy named Takuya threw a stone at his friend Singo. Singo threw back the stone to Takuya. Takuya ran back to his mother, crying, and said to her, "Singo threw a stone at me!" In this case Singo is the one going to be scolded. Did Takuya actually tell a lie?

This kind of deformation in reporting or modification of memories always takes place. In the child's mind, the order of conception was A-B-C, but A was forgotten, and the other parts became more important. As a result, the cause-and-effect link was reversed.

For Takuya, only the part of "the stone being thrown back to him" remained in his memory, thus he reported this event to his mother. We call this phenomenon "recency effect," a cognitive bias where people tend to recall the most recent events rather than remote events. In contrast, sometimes the first event can be the most impressionable in one's memory, which is called "primacy effect" in psychological terms. Takuya's case is a good example of the recency effect. As such, a child's lie often stems from the error of memory.

When we recall a certain event and realize that some parts of the event are beyond understanding, we extract past experiences from our memories and embed these into the part where we lack understanding, trying to make a whole story consistent. In this process, again, our brain tries to integrate several memories of experience, linking each to the other and new knowledge is added. As a result of modification of memories, such memories might be transformed into something completely new.

Story telling also uses experience as its base material, in the same way as the process of imagining. However, this story will not be completely the same as the experience even if it is used as a base for creating the story. Modification or adding of information will generate a new story when it is told. In addition, the story telling requires the use of wording as well as the use of physical function; therefore, this activity will play a role as a tool to add further new information.

The act of talking, which is a phonetic output process, will generate five responses. First, it enriches information in memories. Second, it applies form and style to such information. Third, the cause-and-effect relationship is clarified within the information. Fourth, apart from just drawing an image in the mind, speaking out and communicating one's own image to others and referencing other people's reaction will lead to further development and deepen the image conversely. Last, the act of speech will allow us to listen to our own voice, thus enabling us to look on an image with a downward view, a kind of metacognitive activity or objectivization.

Adults misinterpret the young child's words as a lie

As explained above, my conclusion is that children at an early age do not lie intentionally in most cases. Most of their "lies" are due to an error of memory where their brain tries to gather the threads of their story of an event they witnessed, and in the midst of this process, some other information will be added which completely alters the entire story. The act of recalling of one's experience results in a reconstitution of memories. Therefore, a lie told by a child during infancy is not a real lie. Both adults and children use reconstitution in the act of recall. Intentional lies are seen in a child of five and half years old or older, when the secondary cognitive revolution occurs.

What kind of abilities evolve in the child during the secondary cognitive revolution? First of all, the ability of planning appears. Then, metacognition, the ability of being aware of target subjects, follows. Further, when a child's brain becomes able to conduct a reversible operation, it will have the capability of causal inference. These three abilities start to link with each other and work in coordination around the age of five and a half years old and above.

Looking at the neurological structure of the brain at the time of the occurrence of the secondary cognitive revolution, the working memory starts to be linked to the hippocampus and amygdale, and as a result, the memory and information processing system will be significantly developed in its quantitative aspect. It is thought that the period of secondary cognitive revolution appears in tandem with such developments as those of cranial nerve functions.

Accordingly, I have reached the conclusion that it is the misinterpretation by adults of the child's words and experiences that makes them conclude the child has told a lie. When an adult says to a child "You're telling a lie!" the child's brain restores the statement with recognition "This is a lie!" When this experience is repeated, a child at the age of five and half or above will start to use this concept strategically and intentionally. This is a so-called "lie." Therefore, it can be ascertained that a child can tell a lie only after the age of five and half and upwards.

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