History Week: A baby's psychological development at age 6 months

Inspired by this post, we've decided to devote a week to the analysis of studies from the history of psychology.

Today we consider the work of Millicent Washburn Shinn, one of the first women admitted to the University of California, Berkeley (in 1874), and the first to earn a Ph.D. there. In 1890, her niece Ruth was born, and Shinn spent hours carefully observing the child's every behavior. This "large mass of data" became the basis for a book that was welcomed by the scholars of the day, The Biography of a Baby, which, while not the first of its kind, certainly was one of the most thorough scientific accounts of a baby's cognitive and physical development in its time.

Shinn describes Ruth's sixth month as "The Dawn of Intelligence." Prior to this time, the baby was primarily exploring her senses, but in the sixth month, Ruth exhibited behaviors that Shinn interpreted as "intelligent." The first example of this is something most people would not categorize this way: toe sucking. Previously Ruth had been able to put a rattle in her mouth, but this seemed almost accidental. Grasping the rattle was a reflex, and by coincidence it was sometimes conveyed to the mouth, where the sucking reflex took over. Getting a toe in your mouth isn't so easy for a six-month-old. Ruth would grab the foot with her hand and draw it toward her mouth, but invariably the leg muscles would resist this action, and the tempting bit of flesh was carried away. Here's Shinn's description of Ruth's eventual success:

She took [the toes] in one hand, clasped the other hand about her instep, and so brought the foot safely up. Still it escaped, and at last she clasped ankle and hell firmly, one with each hand, and after several attempts brought the elusive to triumphantly into her mouth. It is true that by looking up to us for sympathy in her success, and relaxing attention, she promptly lost it once more; but she recaptured it, and from this time on, for weeks, had immense satisfaction in it every time she was undressed.

Shinn anticipated the objections of those who would suggest that this wasn't an example of true intelligence, but rather mere instinct.

She argued that this behavior encouraged the "cooperation" of the various body parts, and prepared the child for later standing and walking. Also, Ruth was exhibiting other marks of intelligence, such as adjusting objects in her hand in order to effectively insert them into her mouth, and gesturing to adults to convey needs and desires.

Shinn also observed at this age the first signs of what we now call "stranger anxiety": Ruth was noticeably upset when an unfamiliar person came between her and her mother. Fortunately for Ruth (and her mother) the problem only persisted a few weeks.

Also at six months, Shinn observed that Ruth seemed to recognize her own name and her two nicknames, "Toodles" and "Toots." Shinn performed a simple experiment to see if Ruth was really responding to her name: she called Ruth with a series of names, like Fred, Mary, Ethel, and so on, intermixing these names with Ruth's actual name and nicknames. Ruth only turned her head when the real name was pronounced.

Shinn was quick to point out that Ruth probably still didn't have an abstract of "name"; instead, she simply associated a few sounds with pleasant things like food and affection.

After Shinn completed her Ph.D. and published The Biography of a Baby in 1900, she returned to caring for her parents and her brother's children, never returning to a career in academe, even though this did appear to be an option that was open to her, even at that early date in the history of women's rights.

Shinn, M.W. (1900) "Baby Biographies in General" and "The Dawn of Intelligence." In The Biography of a Baby, New York: Houghton Mifflin.

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I wonder if Piaget was influenced by Shinn. The description of her work sounds virtually identical to Piaget's, particularly concerning the method of observing his own children to develop his cognitive development theory, and the description of the sensorimotor substages component of his theory.

By Tony Jeremiah (not verified) on 28 May 2008 #permalink

I can relate to that! My youngest grand-daughter (age 7) is fluent in two languages and semi-fluent in two morel.

It seems to me that the most rapid learning and life-long values and lessons occur before age seven. Why is that?

C. James Goodwin (past-president of the Society for the History of Psychology) informs me that Shinn was first cousins with the famed early Clark U. psychologist, E. C. Sanford (who had previously been a student of G. Stanley Hall's at Johns Hopkins U.). He writes: "Sanford's mother was June Clark (Sanford). Her sister, Lucy Clark (Shinn) was the mother of Millicent Shinn. As you have probably discovered, Shinn edited the Overland Monthly, a literary magazine, from 1883-1891. During that time, Sanford published several poems there and the quality of them suggests that the family connection was in play. More importantly, he also published, in the Overland Monthly in 1887, an article called "The Writings of Laura Bridgman." It is prefaced by a one-page note from Hall, who was controlling Sanford's Johns Hopkins U. graduate school life at the time. In the note Hall says, in effect, that he had been planning to write such a paper, didn't have time, and gave it to Sanford to do. You probably already know that Laura Bridgman was the nineteenth century version of Helen Keller. After she died, her brain was preserved and examined by Donaldson, while he was still at Clark (AJP, 1892, 4(4), 503-513."

By Chris Green (not verified) on 30 May 2008 #permalink

Babies at 6 months are excellent swimmers as well (for a few seconds)...they loose this reflex after the 7th or so month though...They instinctively close their nasal passages to prevent water from filling their lungs

In response to Charles,a simplified answer to why the most rapid learning and life-long values and lessons occur before age seven is two-fold:
(1) Brain development is practically explosive in early childhood, and connections form based on the combination of DNA and experiences in the environment.
(2) Children are PAYING ATTENTION to everything possible most of their waking hours. They are constantly learning and relating what they learn to their lives, especially how to orient and move in space. Movement acts as the basis for higher learning.
As we age, we tend to spend more and more time moving habitually, i.e., not learning. However, when we learn to learn like children again, we, too, can make rapid progress and change our lives. Moshe Feldenkrais developed the most sophisticated method in the world today for learning to learn in this way. He devised over 500 lessons in movement that prompt neural development. No one has surpassed his work, which is the application of what brain research is only now beginning to discover.
If you want to experience this for yourself, check out a Feldenkrais Method(r) class / practitioner near you: www.Feldenkrais.com
Cheryl Becker, Guild Certified Feldenkrais Method Practitioner(r)

By Cheryl Becker (not verified) on 14 Sep 2009 #permalink