Learning in Numbers

There is strength in numbers, but is there wisdom?

I’ve heard from multiple sources the claim that parenting, paradoxically, gets easier after the fourth child. There are several simple explanations for this phenomenon: people get more skilled at parenting after lots of practice; the older kids start helping out with the younger ones, etc.

But what if the phenomenon rests on something much more basic about human psychology–our desire to imitate others?

(Perhaps you don’t, dear reader. There are always exceptions.)

As Aristotle put it, man is a political animal–by which he meant that we are inherently social and prone to building communities (polities) together, not that we are inherently prone to arguing about who should govern North Carolina, though that may be political, too. In Aristotle’s words, a man who lives entirely alone is either a beast (living like an animal) or a god (able to fulfill all of his own needs without recourse to other humans.) Normal humans depend in many ways on other humans.

Compared to our pathetic ability to learn math (just look at most people’s SAT-math scores) and inability to read without direct instruction, humans learn socially-imparted skills like the ability to speak multiple languages, play games, assert dominance over each other, which clothes are fashionable, and how to crack a socially-appropriate joke with ease.

Social learning comes so naturally to people that we only notice it in cases of extreme deficit–like autism–or when parents protest that their children are becoming horribly corrupted by their peers.

So perhaps households with more than 4 children have hit a threshold beyond which social learning takes over and the younger children simply seem to “absorb” knowledge from their older siblings instead of having to be explicitly taught.

Consider learning to eat, a hopefully simple task. We are born with instincts to nurse, put random things in our mouths, and swallow. Preventing babies from eating random non-food objects is a bit of a problem for new parents. But learning things like “how to get this squishy food into your mouth with a spoon without also getting it everywhere else in the room” is much more complicated–and humans take food rituals to much more complicated heights than strained peas and carrots.

Parents of new children put a great deal of effort into teaching them to eat (something that ought to be an instinct.) Those with means puree fresh veggies, chop bits of meat, show a sudden interest in organics, and sit down to spoon every single last bit into their infants’ mouths. It is as if they are convinced that kids cannot learn to eat without at least as much instruction as a student learning to wield a welding torch. (And based on my own experience, they’re probably right.)

By contrast, parents of multiple children have–by necessity–relaxed. As a popular comic once depicted (though I can’t find it now,) feeding at this point becomes throwing Cheerios at the highchair as you run by.

Yet I’ve never seen any evidence that the younger children in large families are likely to be malnourished–they seem to catch the Cheerios on the fly and do just fine.

What if imitation is a strong factor in larger families, allowing infants and young children to learn skills like “how to eat” without needing direct parental instruction just by watching their older siblings? You might object that even infants in single parent households could learn to eat by imitating their parents (and they probably do,) but having more people around probably enforces the behavior more strongly, and having younger children around gives an example that is much more similar to the infant. We adults are massive compared to children, after all.

If basic learning of life skills proceeds more easily in an environment with more peers,(for infants or adults,) then what effects should we expect from our current trend toward extreme atomization?

I recently came across an essay about life in a trailer park vs sturdier housing:

To me, growing up in that trailer park meant playing until dark with neighborhood kids, building tree houses and snow forts. Listening out my bedroom window for the sound of my dad’s pickup truck leaving for work in the early morning. Riding my bike down the big hill at the top of the lot, avoiding potholes and feeling safe because there wasn’t much traffic and if I fell and skinned my knee, someone would come out on their front porch and ask if I was okay.

Some of the only happy memories I have of my childhood were from that time in my life, before my parents were thrust into insurmountable debt, before my mother was hospitalized, before I had to go live with my grandmother. Nana had a real house. She didn’t live in a trailer. But when she would scream at me or try to attack me as I squeezed by her and fled upstairs, I wished I had neighbors close by to hear her — to believe me, and to perhaps even help.

The most dysfunctional and unstable years of my life were spent in a real house, with four walls and a slanted roof — where fences went up between the houses so that no one ever had to feel responsible for what went on behind their neighbor’s front door.

This is more about atomization than learning, but still interesting. Is it good for humans to be so far apart? To live far from relatives, in houses with thick walls, as single children or single adults, working and commuting every day among strangers?

Certainly the downsides of being among relatives are well-documented. Many tribal societies have downright cruel customs directed at relatives, like sati or adult circumcision. But that doesn’t mean that the extreme opposite–total atomization–is perfect. Atomization carries other risks. Among them, staying indoors and not socializing with our neighbors may cause us to lose some of our social knowledge, our ability to learn how to exist together.

We might expect that physical atomization due to technological change (sturdier houses, more entertaining TV, comfier climate control systems,) could cause symptoms in people similar to those caused by medical deficits in social learning, like autism. A recent study on the subject found an interesting variation between the brains of normies and autists:

So great was the difference between the two groups that the researchers could identify whether a brain was autistic or neurotypical in 33 out of 34 of the participants—that’s 97% accuracy—just by looking at a certain fMRI activation pattern. “There was an area associated with the representation of self that did not activate in people with autism,” Just says. “When they thought about hugging or adoring or persuading or hating, they thought about it like somebody watching a play or reading a dictionary definition. They didn’t think of it as it applied to them.” This suggests that in autism, the representation of the self is altered, which researchers have known for many years, Just says.

This might explain the high rates of body dysmorphias in autism. It might also explain the high rates in society.

I remember another study which I read ages ago which found that people basically thought about “God” in the same parts of their brain where they thought about themselves. This explains why God tends to have the same morals as His believers. If autists have trouble imagining themselves, then they may also have trouble imagining God–and this might explain rising atheism rates.

Even our rising autism rates, though probably driven primarily by shifts in diagnostic fads, might be influenced by shrinking families and greater atomization, as kids with borderline conditions might show more severe symptoms if they are also more isolated.

On the other hand, social media is allowing people to come together and behave socially in new and ever larger groups.

For all their weaknesses, autists are probably better at normies at certain kinds of tasks, like abstract reasoning where you don’t want to think too much about yourself. I have long suspected that normies balk at philosophical dilemmas such as the trolley problem because they over-empathize with the subjects. Imagining themselves as one of the victims of the runaway trolley causes them distress, and distress causes them to attack the person causing them distress–the philosopher.

And so the citizens of Athens condemned Socrates to death.

But just as people can overcome their natural and very sensible fear of heights in order to work on skyscrapers, perhaps they can train themselves not to empathize with the subjects of trolley problems. Spending time on problems with no human subjects (such as mathematics or engineering) may also help people practice ways of approaching problems that don’t immediately resort to imagining themselves as the subject. On the converse, perhaps a bit of atomization (as seen historically in countries like Britain and France, and recently AFAIK in Japan,) helps equip people to think about difficult, non-human related mathematical or engineering problems.

Thoughts?

4 thoughts on “Learning in Numbers

  1. As someone that comes from a big country family and moved into a highly atomised urban environment, my feeling is that living with large families can make up so much time (including mental processing time) that it just doesn’t leave much time left over for dealing with abstract concepts. When you live somewhere where everyone knows everybody, you have to know everybody as well, maintain reciprocal favours, keep track of grudges etc. Makes me think of the Hazda: even though they always share their food, if they have a chance to not do so, they don’t.

    So when people live in the big family ‘traditional’ life they are dedicating their brain power to understanding our traditional functions. What we’ve done in the modern world though is perfect the ability to not share our food. Which has saved us from having to think about social dynamics, and freed us to think abstractly.

    Raised around others we are constantly aware of our impact on others. Our understanding of this forms a notion of us being judged: God judging us. In our domestic envrionment we were judged by all sorts, the elderly, the weak and the wise. Now we live only amongst our own kind, the same age as us, with the same priorities: we are judged by our own reflection. Our God has become ourselves.

    Liked by 1 person

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