I’m not a parent– the child depicted here is my niece, whom I’ve been visiting this week. I don’t spend a whole lot of time around kids ordinarily, so it’s always entertaining to see the world through their lens. I barely remember being three, (and memories of my sister at three are a little foggy) but I’m sure I was this way too.

My schoolin’ is in biology, so I sometimes veer toward the scientific and analytical in my dealings with children. If I had the resources, it would be really interesting to put a three year old into an fMRI, and compare the brain activity of the toddler to a totally-hammered adult. Of course, such a study would likely never get approved (for many reasons), but still, one wonders. Mood swings, imprecise language, uncoordinated physical movement, and “interesting” decisions all seem to be common factors between the two groups. Maybe it’s just coincidence, though. Heck, maybe someone has already conducted just such a study– I should really do some research before I just assume no one has.

It’s been really interesting watching my niece turn into a little person over the last several years, though. She’s way more conversational now– even during our last visit in March, I’m not sure our interactions were as sophisticated. She’s also got quite a bit more focus: she’s interested in playing games for twenty minutes or more, rather than shifting gears to something else after only five minutes. Her vocabulary seems substantially expanded, and she seems more aware of “types” and “categories” of things.

Sometimes, she almost seems like a little computer when she’s thinking, as she evaluates new input to the data that she’s already collected, building a catalog of rules and exceptions that she uses to interpret the world. The Mommy, Daddy, and Baby template is used to evaluate a lot of situations, for example. I’m not sure what she thinks of adults without children, though. Are all women assumed to be Mommies, and all men Daddies? Or is the presence of a child necessary to apply and define the category? What is her perception of me & Lorie, for example? As married adults without children, do we fit into an understood place on the social tree? Are we like “teachers”, or simply “aunt” and “uncle”?

Of course, that’s all overly reductive and analytical. She’s not a computer, even if she, at times, seems to be reacting to the world through a series of IF… THEN trees. She’d be too predictable if that were the case! Just tonight, she decided halfway through eating some blueberries that she didn’t like blueberries, despite eating them for the last several days, and continuing to eat more after making her observation.

Anyway, watching her grow up isn’t simply intellectual grist for my curiosity about the nature of emergent intelligence and biological complexity– it’s also pretty darn cute, and kind of magical. Yesterday, in the car ride back from the beach, she was receiving instruction in the fine art of making Michael Jackson noises, to the entertainment of all. Most of the time, she’s more like the schmoopy Hallmark-card stuff, rather than the possible subject of an article in a scientific journal.