The Problem with Blank Slates

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The Problem with Blank Slates

Postby Kraut » Wed May 18, 2022 11:00 am

The Problem with Blank Slates

https://theemotionallearner.com/2021/11 ... nk-slates/


Summary:

Blank Slate (Tabula Rasa) views of human development erroneously claim that we are born devoid of innate mental content.
From birth, humans already have in place the systems required for rapid learning.
These systems include those related to object recognition, language, numbers and intentions of others.
They are then fine-tuned as the infant interacts with the world.




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Language

Nowhere can we see this rapid acquisition of skills more than in language learning. Infants learn their native language incredibly quickly, a feat that would be impossible if each and every word needed to be reinforced, as some behaviourists hypothesised. This is not to say infants are born with a full lexicon or a deep understanding of how to construct sentences conforming to grammatical rules, just that humans are unique in their ability to acquire language (attempts have been made to teach other primates language, including sign language, with little success).

From birth, babies prefer to listen to their native language compared to a foreign one and there is some evidence that this preference begins in pregnancy. Even babies born two-and-a-half months early respond to spoken language, suggesting this ability begins very early indeed (see, for example, Mahmoudzadeh et al. 2013).

Babies appear to learn to speak effortlessly and naturally, provided they are raised in an environment where language is spoken. At only a few days old, when babies hear the sound ‘a’ they open their mouths in a way that corresponds with the sound. If they hear the sound ‘e’ they will move their mouths in a different way. Even before they have knowledge of their own mouths, babies are trying to create the sounds they hear. In one interesting study, Stanislas Dehaene and Ghislaine Dehaene-Lambertz scanned the brains of babies while they slept and listed to speech. They discovered that the same brain regions were active in 3 month-old babies as in adult brains when they heard speech in their native language, suggesting that brain organisation doesn’t have to wait for experience to be accumulated in order to process language – the ability already exists.

For us to learn our own language, we need to be able to categorise the sounds that make it up (called phonemes). Newborn babies are able to distinguish between all speech sounds and are actually more sensitive to these sounds than adults. For the first twelve months or so, this sound discrimination is determined by the sounds the infant experiences in the environment, but beyond about twelve months they lose the ability to distinguish between sounds they are not exposed to.
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Re: The Problem with Blank Slates

Postby zenmonkey » Wed May 18, 2022 12:09 pm

“Babies prefer to listen to their native language compared to a foreign one”??

I think that’s likely bullshit.
Looked up the reference cited and it says no such thing.

Mahmoudzadeh et al. 2013
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Re: The Problem with Blank Slates

Postby Le Baron » Wed May 18, 2022 3:11 pm

Does a Tabula Rasa view really make that assumption? The view of such a tabula rasa has widely differed throughout history, but I don't believe any version of it denies that core mental capacity and structures for learning are themselves not present. Even the version supposed to be opposed to tabula rasa, the Platonic conception of everything being present in the soul/mind as some reflection of the universal 'theory of forms', falls down a bit in the dialogue where it first appears: Meno.

In that Socrates only really succeeds in demonstrating that Meno can be lead to 'knowledge' by being led through a chain of reason which his mental structures allow him to grasp; not that he would intuitively arrive at it because it is there already. If that were true Socrates could just go home and let Meno get on with it.

I don't think any conception of Tabula rasa posits a completely empty mind. That it's 'primed' and ready to take reasoned arguments or even propaganda surely can't be denied. That itself is discussed in Plato, which he kicks against when it isn't his view being used for the 'good society'. The slightly sinister 'give me a young mind and I have it for life' indicates that you can shape a mind from without, regardless of the inbuilt capacity for reason. Being born into a religious atmosphere is evidence of this.
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Re: The Problem with Blank Slates

Postby leosmith » Sat May 21, 2022 5:20 am

Kraut wrote:Infants learn their native language incredibly quickly

Compared to rocks?
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Re: The Problem with Blank Slates

Postby Beli Tsar » Sat May 21, 2022 10:02 am

leosmith wrote:
Kraut wrote:Infants learn their native language incredibly quickly

Compared to rocks?

The puppy we are currently looking after is learning new words a lot faster than our kids did at the same age.

Admittedly it's passive knowledge only.
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Re: The Problem with Blank Slates

Postby Cainntear » Sun May 22, 2022 12:53 pm

Le Baron wrote:Does a Tabula Rasa view really make that assumption? The view of such a tabula rasa has widely differed throughout history, but I don't believe any version of it denies that core mental capacity and structures for learning are themselves not present.

Clearly the mind has the capacity to learn. Tabula rasa, as I was taught it, was that there is just a general capacity to learn, and not specific structures to learn specific things.

We know now that this isn't true, and it would be patently absurd to claim otherwise.

There's a human tendency to take names and ideas and change their meaning once the original meaning is disproven, almost as though if a word exists, we don't want it to mean something that is wrong.

I don't think it's particularly helpful, in that it stops us discussing the history and development of human thought in its own terms.

Perhaps it was more vague before we learned a lot about the brain's anatomy, and perhaps it's only Locke and Hume that made it as extreme a position as it became, but I think the term is now quite firmly associated with that position.
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