accidents and purpose

My two and a half year old grandson threw his spoon to the floor. It was a swift action, coming, it seemed from nowhere. It was’t one of those “let’s see what happens” kind of a thing that we often see in children that age, the early scientific explorations of the law of gravity. No, this one had a force behind it, and the look my grandson offered was toward us, not toward the floor.

His father, always gentle, asked, “why did you do that?” My grandson’s face softened, “It was an accident.”  An accident?  “No,” my son-in-law said, again in careful explanation, not condemnation, “No, you did that on purpose; it wasn’t an accident.”

And I wondered to myself, this wandering, wondering self, aging as it is into a limited future, was it really on purpose? Of course, from the outside looking only at the action, it clearly was no accident. But from the inside, what was going on there? What purpose did my grandson have in mind? Of course we can go to the books and claim any number of child developmental reasons; but again, that’s from the outside trying to make  sense out of someone else’s behavior. But from the inside?

And then I thought, of course, it was simply an impulse, and that word hasn’t yet found it’s way into my grandson’s vocabulary. He didn’t do it “on purpose”; there was no purpose, no thought, no plan, no judgement. It was impulse, a non-thinking, but nevertheless cognitive (synapse driven) behavior and the fundamental learning which will go on for years and years, will be to recognize impulse driven behavior before we let it dictate an action we will regret.

All of this musing as a result of my current readings about the inferential “thinking” systems that have kept us alive during our evolutionary journey; kept us going long enough to push our DNA forward to the next generation. These systems (see Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained) spring into action unbidden and unrecognized and it’s not too far a stretch to think of them as impulsive protective reactions designed to keep us safe in a hostile, threatening environment.

So impulse has a place, and it’s own evolutionary purpose even though we very often cannot recognize that the particular behavior it generates at any moment may be unnecessary and even problematic in this phase of our developmental journey. If the behavior it generates resulted in no more than dozens of spoons on the floor there wouldn’t be much reason for concern. But when it dictates safety in terms of group behavior, what groups may be friendly, and what groups may be a threat, the consequences are far reaching.

This current line of research is fascinating and I believe tremendously useful and important. We operate on automatic pilot more often than we realize. I also know that very few us have the time, energy or interest to learn more about it. But if we think of the old phrase, “that’s food for thought” then I hope more and more of us will try to include it in our diet. Malnutrition in this domain, will have very dire consequences.

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