Consciousness is a funny thing when you think about it. There is the universe, out there, in its entirety. And then there are life forms that developed an apparatus to perceive that universe. That this even happens is incredible.
In truth, not every living being is capable of seeing every aspect of reality. We see bits and pieces. Living beings only really see what they need to see. I wonder what first life forms were capable of sensing. I am guessing their first feelings perhaps were simply sensation: something does exist. After that, perhaps they developed a motor inside them; one that had to be emotional in nature—in other words, one that wanted to eat. After this, perhaps their first consciousness was an ability to seek energy and avoid harm. And that was, perhaps, it.
It’s well known that not all organisms can see all aspects of reality. Dogs can hear sounds that we can’t. Our own reasoning mind leads us to the rather naïve belief that we can see the totality of all reality. We really can’t, and nor do we really need to. We see what we need to see. As a human, you are weighted to be interested in certain things and not others. You probably don’t notice every blade of grass in your backyard—but a worm would. When I watch bees and butterflies, it’s clear to me that their sensory apparatus is telling them, “Find orange! Find orange!” Or whatever other color. They seem weighted to find flowers of a certain sort, often of a certain color. At any rate, it is very apparent that what bees and butterflies “see” is totally different than what I see, and how they viscerally experience the world is totally different than how I do.
Even among humans, our interests vary. When I walk into a room, I tend to notice people’s emotions. I am highly sensitive to them, and I will respond if someone seems uncomfortable. My husband, on the other hand, (and I did ask him) notices “who people are and what they are doing.” As a girl, I was constantly scanning the ground for any and all sidewalk cracks. I watch my daughter do that now (and not so much my sons), and I see a living being whose consciousness seems to be weighted to want to forage for plants. Both of my sons, on the other hand, seemed to be born all but intuitively understanding what both a “truck and “gun” were.
My interest in human consciousness was kicked off when I start doing child development work for children aged four. At four, children develop a perception of their 3-D world in a way that persists day after day. Said another way, you probably don’t remember much from when you were younger than four. You might remember a thing or two from when you were three. If you do, it is likely things that made a big emotional impact on you, such as the birth of your sister. (Aha! How consciousness is imprinted starts to reveal itself.) But from about age four and after, you probably remember things like where you went to school, where your grandmother’s house was, who your siblings were, etc. It’s a persistent consciousness, day after day.
This got me thinking about creatures’ different levels of consciousness. It’s possible, even as a human, to do things that seem quite rational and yet have no permanent, recordable consciousness of it. A three year old is still a strategic, semi-rational being. They can hold conversations with you. They can learn to get around in new buildings. They can even describe their own character traits (and yours, ha!) They can do all sorts of stuff; they deceptively seem rational. And yet that long-term memory is not there. The full picture is not there yet.
The Brain’s Image Projection Capability
I am proposing that an image projection capability in the mind is necessary for the formation of consciousness itself.
This probably seems backwards of how consciousness operates. We think of consciousness as images that we receive. We’re the movie watcher, not the film projector. Yes, I think both reception and projection are part of how it develops and functions. But I am arguing that it seems so obviously this way to you because everything has gone mostly well. You have successfully developed object constancy. We see the image projection capability only when things go terribly wrong or when we study child development—the process that puts it there in the first place.
The most familiar, observable example I can give of the brain’s image projection capability is a child’s imaginary friends. Children often develop these around age 4-1/2. It’s an image conjured up in their mind that they project out, into reality. It’s all but a hologram that gets projected from inside the mind, out. This is an example of an image projection. And it is, interestingly enough, around this age when persistent consciousness sets in, such that a child remembers events day after day.
We can also see this image projection capability of the mind when things go haywire. It especially shows up when humans are in despair. For instance, when humans are dying of thirst in the desert, they are known to conjure up an image of a body of water that doesn’t exist—a mirage. They are so convinced that they see it, that they start to drink this “water,” to find out that it’s only sand. This is again the brain’s image projection capability. The brain projects images from the mind, out into reality. And the brain is weighted to see what it wants to see.
How the image projection capability puts consciousness into place
My argument, in its simplest form, is that in order to “see” reality, a living thing needs to be born with a few innate, hardwired images to get the process started.
When babies are born, it is known that they have a rooting reflex. They naturally turn towards something close to them, expecting a breast, when their mouth is stimulated. I propose this is a bit more than a “reflex,” as if it’s a simple reaction, similar to how the leg kicks if someone hits a person’s knee. Rather, a breast feels right. They expect it. They have a vague idea that it should be there. If you accept this argument, they are, as such, born with the idea of “breast.” (Other animals are also very clearly born expecting a mother or expecting to find their energy source, such as how chickens look for insects.)
Like the first organisms from billions of years ago, what newborn babies naturally “see” in reality is an energy source. It is otherwise commonly thought that babies don’t see much at birth. They see things, as some have described, as you might see them if you squinted your eyes a bit. Without this innate instinct and predetermined image, babies would die.
Indeed, at birth, babies don’t see much of reality well. They are not born with a robust consciousness. It’s not until three months that they will follow your finger as you move it slowly in front of them. They don’t even see basic objects well upon birth. Later, when they discover their own hand, it’s as if they discovered a planet. Even basic objects have to come into crystal clear perception through some kind of process. What puts this consciousness into place? An amazing apparatus, I am proposing.
Carl Jung argued that we are born with archetypes in our mind. These are also called “archaic remnants” or “primordial images.” These are images in our mind that we are born with, and which carry enormous emotional weight. There is a Mother Archetype, for instance. We have a strong emotional drive to have a mother. Children who don’t will go find a replacement. As such, we are born with a collective consciousness. We have images accessible to us that were available to our ancestors, built up over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution.
Just as the human body represents a whole museum of organs, with a long evolutionary history behind them, so we should expect the mind to be organized in a similar way rather than to be a product without history. By “history” I do not mean the fact that the mind builds itself up through conscious tradition (language, etc.), but rather its biological, prehistoric, and unconscious development beginning with archaic man, whose psyche was still similar to that of an animal. This immensely old psyche forms the basis of our mind, just as the structure of our body is erected upon a generally mammalian anatomy.—Carl Jung, The Undiscovered Self
Jung came to his theories after dealing with psychiatric patients. He expanded on Freud’s theory of an Oedipus Complex, theorizing that many ancient legends might explain current human behavior, not just the one of the Oedipus Complex. When he would have trouble understanding a patient, he would find ancient legends that had similar themes as to what kinds of dreams and such that the patients had. The similarities were too numerous to be a coincidence. The dreams we have make sense. Jung developed his idea of archetypes. These are images built into the human consciousness that were put there before human’s reflected on their own consciousness, and which carry a heavy emotional impact. As noted, there is a Mother Archetype. We are also repelled by certain things, such as the “Trickster” personality, another archetype. These images guide a person, internally. They move us towards or away from things.
So, as is argued, living beings are born with images in their mind. They then go look for, or are repelled by, certain things in reality. To illustrate it, here is a hypothetical example of what a snake, who eats mice, might have as an image.
That children are gifted with innate images is also what my child development work has found. As I’ve written about, I noticed that the milestones that I document tended to fall into a pattern. Grouped together, several milestones seemed to be working on similar skills. The first set of milestones were more imaginative in nature, followed by skills that were more reality-oriented. Clustered together, I call these related milestones a “hill.”
I noticed that each hill was kicked off by a child who seemed to be given, as if a gift, wildly imaginative thinking. I have consistently, up to age four anyway, described this thinking as “overly optimistic.” Their thoughts are exceedingly heroic. (Heroically overcoming all odds is another archetype that Jung writes is etched, emotionally, deep in the collective human unconscious.) At age-related times, children think they can shrink. Or that they can jump over a river in one bound. The form of these images is not exact down to the detail across all humans, but general patterns do form. These images (collectively an “imagination”) that they are given don’t seem to be just random images for the sake of imagination. Rather, they incite action. Thus, it seems, these images weight them to start to want to go learn about something or, like the “rooting reflex,” go find something.
Here is one example of how this seems to work. Around 4.2 [year.month], children look down and seem to think the floor they are walking on is “slippery” or perhaps that there is a lake underneath them. They are scared of this. They don’t want to go down the stairs anymore, because the stairs are “slippery.” Their brain is conjuring up something that doesn’t exist. Why do they do this?
Well, here is one theory. After this, they tend to start playing games testing the ground. They might jump on a bed more or play on unsteady things, like swinging rope ladders, more. They might more intensely play “the floor is lava!” games. They might have played this game at earlier ages—but it was largely for fun, copying others. Now they are more pointed in testing the ground itself. It, indeed, seems universal that children have this fear of quicksand or lava. The pattern, again, is similar, but the concretes can change. It is commonly seen that for modern children, their fear is of lava. But when I was a child, it was quicksand. I was, on and off, afraid of quicksand from about the age four until six. I can tell you I never, ever, came across quicksand in northwestern Pennsylvania, where I grew up. At best, I might have seen it in an old black-and-white movie. But still, that image persisted or otherwise made a huge emotional impact on me when I but briefly saw it. Why? I’ll say this: it suggests we modern humans are still designed to live in the wilderness, in which knowing if the ground is steady or not would be of immense benefit. This idea of “the floor is lava!” causes children to test the ground underneath them, over and over, seeing if it is steady. They also get ample experience scurrying up to some place higher if needed. This is a highly adaptive feature for beings who, really, are still designed to live in the wild. They also, however, interestingly enough, become intensely interested in building a house at this age.
At 4 years, 3 months, they test the ground a lot more. Number is days since due date.
One way or another, I have found that children “see” an unstable floor, such as ice or a scary river, in their early fours, even though one is not there. My argument is that these images seem to cause them to engage reality far more, refining their understanding of it. As this process progressively unfolds, in their mind, the world goes from such that you would see if your eyes were squinted (such as children do as babies) to something with detail and nuance. This really is what consciousness is. It is ever expanding. Do I have full consciousness as an adult? No. There are aspects of reality that skim right past me, unnoticed, still blurry. Every time I learn or investigate something new, I opened up yet more about reality to myself, and thus have expanded my own consciousness. What you see in detail, even now as an adult, is based on what you engage and take interest in.
I document these “hills,” which are kicked off with highly imaginative thinking and thus house the images that are given to children, extensively in my books. So, I won’t cover them exhaustively here. But this is, as I am arguing, the pattern: images are given to children that they all but “see.” Something from within is projected out. They expect to see something. These images are not gifted all at once at birth. Rather, they are released, periodically, at semi-predictable, age-related times. I can’t be sure, but my guess is they are most likely released during sleep. Dreams are another example of the mind’s image projection capability. They are, perhaps, the engine behind the entire process.
It is as if consciousness were a sort of projector that casts its light (of attention or interest) on new perceptions—due to arrive presently—as well as on the traces of former ones in a dormant state. As a conscious act, this process can be understood as an intentional and voluntary event. Yet just as often consciousness is forced to turn on its light by the intensity of an external or internal stimulus.
Other people’s grounding effect
The other thing I have found is that other people have a profoundly grounding effect on each other, as this process plays out. This process goes terribly if other (loving, helpful) people aren’t around to help a child.
Humans do terribly if they don’t have another human to ground them, especially when in despair. Even adults falter. Let’s think again of the man in the desert who sees a mirage of water. He cannot even see if water is there or not—the basic facts of reality. He is not comfortable; he is not grounded; and the mind’s image projection capability goes completely haywire. A similar situation happens when sailors have gotten lost at sea. The situation is much worse when they are alone. They become so delusional that, though they haven’t, they think they have spotted land, “dock,” jump off the boat, and plunge to their death. Consciousness is an incredible thing, almost voracious in how much it wants to feed itself to work properly—but, really, quite tenuous.
Humans can greatly validate or invalidate others. Have you ever lost your keys? Do you know the feeling of how maddening that is? You expect the keys to be there. Your brain is designed this way. It expects to have the things it needs, nearby. If someone actively took your keys, it can send a person into utter dizziness. There are abusive individuals who take advantage of this. This is known as “gaslighting.” This was named after a movie in which an abusive character keeps lighting candles or blowing them out, while telling his victim he sees none of it.
There was a somewhat famous study published in The Scientific American in 1955 entitled “Opinions and social pressure”. A person came into a room with seven other people. They were shown a card with a line of length x. They were asked which of three lines on another card matched it. They then went down the line asking everyone what their answer was. At first, the other seven people gave the right answer. Then after a few rounds of this, the seven gave the wrong answer. The seven, of course, were in on the experiment. The result was that 75% of the people gave the incorrect answer at least once. When others see others not seeing what they see, they start to doubt themselves. I propose this doesn’t show that these people can’t think on their own. Rather, it shows just how much other people ground us to reality itself.
This is an important part of this process of wild fantasies becoming refined. We greatly look to other people to know what is true or not. The group has a big effect on us. We can see how this process itself unfolds by studying child development. Children at age four, by nature, are rather enmeshed. They seem to think that what they see, you see, and vice versa. How this process unfolds, from enmeshment to individuation, and the importance of quality, deep relationships with others whom we can count on to tell us what is true, will be the subject of my next chapter.
When things go awry
This theory about image projection might better explain much mental illness, much of which starts in youth. It’s safe to say that much mental illness is the brain’s image projection system gone totally haywire. People have hallucinations, haunting dreams, etc. Anxiety is the brain kicking up every worst-case scenario possible. Several personality disorders, such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder, are marked by people who escape into fantasyland and stay there, permanently. And this disorder sets in during early youth. Without a loving, stable, safe home, children are prone to developing personality disorders. They live in a world where everything is a flux. Lying is their normal—but they don’t even know they are lying. That the facts of reality are interchangeable is normal to them. They still live in that wobbly fantasy land that humans start out with. The process must unfold: fantasy followed by clarifying reality, smoothed out by mostly enjoyable experiences, guided by loving adults. If we knew how important this process was, I don’t think we would ever compromise it.
And if it does go terribly, might an understanding of this help? I’m imagining a 3-D virtual simulator to give people the wildly fantastical thinking they developed as children again, but this time guided in a better way. For instance, at age 3 children think they can shrink. I think this helps put depth perception into place. Would this help a person who struggles with depth perception—to “tour” such an augmented reality? It’s well known that art has the power to heal. Art is essentially a recreation of reality for people. To me, the most powerful image that can help a person is a smiling face, from a person with genuinely good intentions. Maybe we are the answer.
How understanding this helps education
When I think of this image projection capability of the brain, my brain boggles at how much it potentially explains or can help. For instance, many people have noted that if you raise awareness of something to someone, they start to “see” it more. If you are about to buy a new car, you start to notice models of those cars on the road more often. Or, if you are considering a particular haircut, you see people with this haircut more often. You are all of a sudden awakened to something that would have otherwise passed you right on by. This is essentially identical to the brain’s own process for developing new shades of consciousness. My argument, simply, is that the brain does this on its own. A few (or, likely, many) images are already implanted in the mind, which are released at age-related times, causing a child to become curious about some aspect of reality.
You can use this process to your advantage when educating children. As an example, at age four, I sometimes turned reading into a “Where’s Waldo?” game. We are looking for the word “dog,” as I read the sentence, can you find it? Such activities tend to be a huge hit. We humans love this. We love to be told we are to find something and to go do it. Children notoriously love hide-and-seek games. They also love treasure hunts. It handily explains the success of a game like Pokémon GO, in which an image is placed in augmented reality, for humans to go find. Go get it—go catch something. In my opinion, this should flip traditional education entirely on its head. Traditional education tries to jam conceptual knowledge down a child’s brain. It is indeed based on the idea that our brains are born blank—with no content in it at all. But, in understanding this process, we might understand that the child is designed to project information out. They won’t understand something well until they get their hands on it. Their brain is already caught by something, something that might be totally different than what we want them to pay attention to. Forcing them to pay attention to what we think is wise is an approach bound to—if abused beyond their natural trust in us—ultimately, fail.
I do, as such, advise some caution in using the understanding of this. My first caution is to not disrespect the natural process. If children are caught by something and engaged, don’t get in the way. It often looks totally nonsensical to us adults. It’s not. Let’s get out of the way of this awesome process unfolding before our eyes. It really is already designed well. Children will forever surprise us with what they are interested in and capable of.
My second caution is to not exploit it. Given the way this works, you can tell a young child almost anything, and they believe you. Humans are designed to live in fantasy first, reality second. As such, it might explain why humans learn far better through fictional stories than factual explanations. (And I fully advocate storytelling as the best way to learn, including for topics such as science and math. I’ll happily discuss this in my books for elementary-aged children.) This, however, is, indeed, easily exploited. How many of us believe that if shipwrecked, young boys would behave like what is described in Lord of the Flies, in which the boys tear each other to shreds? No factual evidence suggests boys would do this. In fact, real life stories suggest the opposite: they would band together and help each other. But this fictional account is all but etched in our collective consciousness as fact. We are this moved by stories and this trusting in what other humans tell us.
We are designed to have our fantasies. We are given fantasies, first. To think “reasonably” (whatever that is), reality has to blast us out of our fantastical thinking. We have to want to leave our fantastical ideas. There needs to be a compelling reason to leave our own biases, natural fantasies, and/or cultural myths. This is something to take with utmost seriousness at age four. Given a four year old’s natural trust in adults and their fantastical thinking, they will believe almost anything you tell them.
Innate images versus blank slate theory
This theory of innate images put through an image projection capability in the mind stands in stark contrast to blank slate theory. It is commonly thought, still, that humans are born without any knowledge whatsoever, and they then gather knowledge as they experience it. My argument is that it’s not, as is thought now, “No knowledge first, Knowledge second.” Rather it seems to be, “Wild images first, Refined knowledge second.”
Children seem to have wobbly fantasies. They seem to know it’s fantasy—but they don’t care. It’s fun. As my six year old told me once, “I KNOW what I’m thinking isn’t true, but just let me have my THINKS.” She said this in reference to me saying I had no favorite child, but she liked to think that she was my favorite child. We tend to investigate just far enough until we personally have decided that something is “actually true,” what makes sense to us, or what we want to believe. We are “sense makers.” Once something makes sense to us or we like the truth of something, we are usually done with it.
The general course of human history tends to prove some of my theories. History is filled with humans who believed magical and highly optimistic things. For instance, some believed that simply putting paint on them would stop arrows and bullets from hitting them. What’s to say they were wrong about this until they tried it out? Either way, it gave them the confidence to go fight a war. Getting humans to tear away from these optimistic thoughts is, notoriously, all but impossible. This is especially after they believe it’s been vetted already; however flimsily. How many humans do you know truly care about proof? Really, we aren’t designed to care much about proof until we have reason to.
We otherwise, for better or worse, much prefer our optimism.
This chapter will appear in Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to Four Year Olds. I expect this to come out in early 2022. Please otherwise check out my other Misbehavior is Growth books. I challenge blank slate theory in Misbehavior is Growth: Three Year Olds, as well.
Amber documents the age-related stages children go through. Her book series is Misbehavior is Growth. Send your friends and family to www.theobservantmom.com.