Narratives and Infancy

Discussion paper given at the Symposium on 'Narrative Analysis of Early Developmental Processes', XIth Biennial International Conference on Infant Studies, Atlanta, 2-5 April 1998

Andrew Lock

Department of Psychology
Massey University
Palmerston North
New Zealand

I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to a symposium that I believe represents, and will come to be seen as, an historic watershed in the study of both infancy and for the wider concerns of psychology in general.

At the start of this decade, Jerry Bruner issued a 'Call to Arms' to come and join what Rom Harré subsequently termed (1991) 'the second cognitive revolution':

'There is no question that cognitive science has made a contribution to our understanding of how information is moved about and processed. Nor can there be much doubt on reflection that it has left largely unexplained and even somewhat obscured the very large issues that inspired the cognitive revolution in the first place. So let us return to the question of how to construct a mental science around the concept of meaning and the processes by which meanings are created and negotiated within a community' (Bruner, 1990: 10).

The required steps for doing this construction have been going on all over the place in recent years. These provide us with the mosaic elements of an intellectual landscape. Today's symposium provides a focus in which those elements are brought together to bear on that transformative site which is where we all know that 'the real action happens': the transformative site of infancy, which we enter as 'mewling, puking babes' and leave as incipient talkers and self-conscious persons.

What are some of these elements?


We know something of the remarkable potential that biology gives an infant as a point of ontogenetic departure. We know that this potential is different in certain ways from that which underwrites the epigenetic pathways available to our closest evolutionary relations.


We know that this biology is a constructive process in a very deep sense. For example, there is an old philosophical conundrum that asks whether the sound of a tree falling in a forest exists if there is no-one there to hear it. Our modern conception of evolutionary biology resolves such a conundrum. For we can say that when a tree falls, information in the form of sound waves is propagated through the atmosphere; that biological processes have produced ways of detecting those sound waves because they contain 'useful information'; and that act of detection constitutes an awareness of 'sound'.

Similarly, 'colours' do not exist in the world, but in the interaction of the structure of the visual system with the discriminable energy in the world. To orient ourselves to these differences, evolution has come up with a solution that does not just draw our attention to them in a very effective way (through making is very aware of them). For we further know that evoultion has 'constructed' the elements of that reality which captures our attention in the first place.


We know that our biology enables us to imbue the world we so live in with elements that are informed with the effects of our past experience. We learn: that process that psychology is concerned with explaining. Learning is about how it is that an organism can change what it does when confronted with a changing environment such that the probability of its doing anything is affected by what it has done in the past.

Its a 'time-hopping device' that's been constructed. That device is our brain.


We know that our time-hopping abilities are more extensive than those of any other organism yet studied; and we know that our brains differ from those of our closest evolutionary relatives.


We are pretty sure that these brains support some kind of amodal integration of different channels of input that we detect simultaneously from the environmental array of affordances we deal with. That is, unlike any other organism, we can 'see' a visual pattern as an 'A' if that shape has been scratched on our backs: we have 'haptic-visual transfer', in this case.


We know that these brains of ours support our being able to re-arrange the elements of our environment into more complex structures than any other organism can manage to do. The crucial difference is that we can put separate 'things' in relation to each other with what Peter Reynolds termed (1983) an 'external grip', and when we do this an entirely new compound, independent object come into existence. Parts become new wholes. A stick can be joined by a lashing - a simulated external grip - to a stone tool to yield a spear: only by humans.

We know we've got all the biological brains needed to do these things.



We also know that while we have been biologically-distinct from other species for around 200 000 years, there is no convincing evidence that we were behaviourally-distinct from other species until around 50 000 years ago.

That behavioural distinction is evidenced by the appearance in the archaeological record of symbolically-mediated social practices. Noble and Davidson conclude from their recent review of the evidence (1996) that language arose relatively recently, 'sometime between about 100,000 and 70,000 years before the present' (p. 217), and it 'was a product of behavioural discoveries rather than biological events' (p214).

Language enables us to understand each other, and as Noble and Davidson note, 'brains are needed for this, but they are not where understanding occurs. ... Far from 'mind' as a personal possession, it is better characterised as socially distributed' (p. 105). This social distribution of mind is part-and-parcel of the communicative use of symbolic signs, which they regard as the defining feature of language. It is these symbolically-mediated social practices 'which happen to be unique to humans' (p.18). And their suggestion is that these practices 'recruit the structures of the brain [to support them], rather than being determined by them. ... Practices interact with structures' (p. 18).

Pierre Janet was spot on, then, back in 1928, when he claimed that 'what created humanity is narration' (1928: 42).

'Narrative' is what we do at the symbolic level to bind more time into our experience of our environment, our Umwelten (von Uexkull, 1940/1982). We 'show' that world to our infants in interacting with them. And through that interacting we, by default, socially construct a narrative form for their lives. We 'reveal' more possible affordances to them through the time-binding nature of our practices. This is what 'narrative' is, in its broadest sense: lives are constituted as stories; lives are consituted by stories; and lives are constituted through stories

It is not just language that has a narrative character.

It is not just that we develop the ability to tell stories.

Rather, narrative is the nature of the modern (and post-modern) beast.

We might 'say/do' with an infant, 'Oooh, look at this car in the picture, it's like ours'. We manipulate a symbolically-mediated relation between the here-and-now and the absent. This is narrative at work, framing and constituting cognition.

We might 'say/do', 'Do you want an ice-cream?' to a child who is upset, in an attempt to recruit their attention to a new topic. This is narrative at work, framing and constituting the handling of emotion.

Through narrative structuring we make aspects of the world salient, and hang them together into 'structuring plots' within which 'what to do next' becomes apparent and sensible to us. And the underlying 'biological kit' is itself elaborated and structured through its developmental interactions with an already-storied world.


We know that when an idea comes to be adopted in infancy research, then, paradigmatically, its time has come. The papers in this symposium are thus ground-breaking, and demonstrate some of the different tacks that narratively-informed research can take with respect to infancy.

Alan Fogel has presented a remarkable piece of innovative work that takes us into what, following Bruner (1986) and Carrithers (1991), we might call the infant's 'landscape of consciousness in action'. This gives us an appreciation of the bedrock Umwelt that is 'worked on' developmentally in interaction with others as new abilities come on line down the track. Abilities such as mental representation, which, as Linda and Douglas Sperry show, are the result of an interaction between socially-mediated processes of how to 'value' events and experiences and those emerging developmental capacities that are individually founded in our biology.

Maria Lyra and her colleagues bring a sophisticated and integrative framework to illuminate the attentional structuring that is central to the constitution of this bedrock Umwelt. They provide insights into how our interests are socially structured to give us things to talk about later in development; how topics can be established against stable backgrounds, and then effortlessly be dissolved so as to be reconstituted with a new focus; how, in John Shotter's (1974) felicitous description, a baby 'uses its mother to do its thinking for it', until that baby has constructed, through interaction, the ability to think for itself. Could it be that their work provides the foundation for a developmental socialising of the project of cognitive linguistics?

Andrea Pantoja and Christy Nelson-Goens similarly connect up with how to understand the emerging human Umwelt in taking 'emotional life' as the organising concept for their work. Action is not neutral, and Umwelten are variously coloured with different qualities as interactions flow through time. Without this attention to the emotional quality that suffuses the site of developmental work, developmental psychology appears as the psychology of an alien, a Mr. Spock perhaps, rather than a psychology of us humans.


We know that if were botanists, and we were here today to talk about trees, then we could only talk about trees 'from the outside', for we can never know what it is like to be a tree: we can only have an 'outsider's knowledge' of them. But since we are people, we know about persons both from 'the outside', and 'from the inside', for we ourselves are people. But because of its historical development, psychology declared this insider's source of knowledge to be illegitimate, invalid in a 'science of behaviour', and sometimes even an epiphenomenal chimera. At one time, that was perhaps 'a good thing'. But in hindsight: well, maybe we've been throwing away a lot of crucial data. The problem is, how do we retrieve that data and still remain 'scientific'? The methodologies adopted in the work presented in this symposium represent ways to perhaps achieve this.


I think that the notion of the Umwelt, which comes from the semiotic ethology of Jacob von Uexkull (e.g., 1940/1982), fits well with Katherine Nelson's recently elaborated 'experiential' perspective on development. In fact, as the site where development is narratively structured in ways made clearer by the presentations at this symposium, I think it even adds a little extra to the richness of her synthesis. She notes that the implications of studies of cognition and brain development in infancy are threefold:

'1. The neonate is prepared to analyze the world in specific ways, established through functions long enduring in evolutionary time. Infancy is thus a period of 'tuning' the perceptual and conceptual systems to the specifics of the social and physical environment.

2. The brain - and mind - are open to, indeed dependent on, experience, and to reprogramming throughout childhood and into later life.

3. Specific human capacities come 'on line' after infancy in collaboration with social-cultural experience. Language and cultural knowledge are products of this collaboration' (1996: 35)

To this, we can add that the world the infant is analyzing is an Umwelt already structured and mediated via a narrating intersubjectivity, as well as scaffolded by an evolutionary history. It is not so much the case that perceptual and conceptual systems are tuned to the specifics of the social and physical environment, but that they are tuned by them.


Welcome to the second cognitive revolution.