The Child and his Behavior. A. R. Luria

The Infant and His World

An adult is not only connected to the surrounding world by thousands of intimate links – he is himself a product of that world; his essential characteristics are to be found in those of his environment. This is not at all true of the newborn child. Everything that provides the adult with a bridge between him and the external world, transmitting each signal from the external environment – his sight, hearing and all his sensory organs – virtually does not function in the newborn. Let us imagine that, one by one, all the strands linking an individual to the external world are severed, so that he finds himself utterly isolated from the world, and quite alone in the midst of things which, as far as he is concerned, do not exist. That, more or less, is the situation of the newborn child. His world is, of course, full of noises and shapes, but his sensory organs are still of no use to him; he is still unable to distinguish individual impressions, he cannot recognize objects and can single out nothing among this general chaos. For him, the world of known, perceived things does not exist, and he lives in the midst of all this like a hermit. Perhaps the first thing that the child begins to perceive and single out from the ambient scene is the position of his own body, those instinctive stimuli, such as hunger, that reach him and whatever suppresses them. While the adult is linked to the world primarily through his eyes, the child’s chief link is his mouth. Sensations of hunger and the tranquilizing, satisfying maternal breast may well be the first of the list of psychic phenomena we can discern in the child.

The child’s link with the external world, his mouth, is where the primary primitive sensations and the primary mental reactions also begin. In the adult, an enormous and decisive role belongs to those functions of behavior that tie him to the environment and are themselves the product of this social and cultural influence – his perceptions, skills and intellect. In the infant that dominant role is performed by organic sensations confined to his body (internal constant stimuli – primitive attractions, irritations of the mucous membranes of the mouth, etc.); that which seems most essential in the behavior of the adult is absent in the infant; the primitive phase of development has other values, other proportions, other laws; in other respects the difference between infant and adult is no less than. that between a chrysalis and a butterfly.[3]

Reality in forms similar to those that we perceive begins to exist in the child at a rather late stage of his development. Coordinated eye movements, for example, do not occur until the age of 1 1/2 months; it is only then that he begins to be able to shift his gaze from one object to another, or from one part of an object to another; and we know that such coordinated eye movements are crucial to vision. Yet at the age of 1 1/2 months the visually perceptible world is still largely inaccessible to the child; the accommodation of the pupil, and its adaptation to external stimuli occurs around the age of 2 months; fairly precise recognition of faces at 2 1/2 to 3 months, and it is not until the age of 4-5 months that we can consider the “external world” to become accessible. This development naturally causes a full-scale revolution in the life of the child: what had been a primitive creature, with only organic sensations, unable to see or hear, engrossed in its own organic life, now encounters reality for the first time, becomes closely involved with it, beginning to react actively to its stimuli, and finding itself obliged, gradually and primitively, to adapt to it. The first, “organic” principle of existence begins to be replaced by a second – the principle of external, and primarily social reality. The child now begins to enter into life. It would, however, be surprising if this creature, registering for the first time its relations with the external world, were to possess even a fraction of the properties of an adult, which are formed only through a lengthy process of adaptation. On the other hand, it would be wrong to think that the child, who already has behind him a certain degree of development, of a special kind and quite unlike that of an adult, is totally lacking in any form of neuro-psychic activity, even of the primitive variety; or that he is a blank sheet of paper, constantly being filled with a text dictated by life. That sheet of paper is already covered with characters, scribbled on it in the first weeks and months of the child’s life, and begins to fill up rapidly as the child’s ties to the world gradually become established. However, these characters are in an unfamiliar language, that we often find hard to understand, and that reminds us of a language now long dead – that of primitive man. It is quite wrong to claim that a child, say aged 2-3 years, is merely less intelligent than an adult, or is simply an underdeveloped person. The child is intelligent in his own way, but his is a different perception of the world, more primitive than ours; he differs from us in his attitude to the world and in the way he thinks.