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Children, and our immature friends, act out in a desire to be recognized; even if that recognition is delivered as a rebuke or reprimand. Attention – any attention – is a vital form of feedback. It tells our brains “you won’t be left here to die”, and more relevant to today’s world: “you matter”.
Developing a sense of self
Throughout human history, as our species has faced the frightening, terrorizing fact that we do not know who we are, or where we are going in this ocean of chaos, it has been the authorities — the political, the religious, the educational authorities — who attempted to comfort us by giving us order, rules, regulations, informing — forming in our minds — their view of reality. To think for yourself you must question authority and learn how to put yourself in a state of vulnerable open-mindedness, chaotic, confused vulnerability to inform yourself. – Timothy Leary
Life can be an ephemeral, uncertain, scary thing. The idea that there are very few natural laws actually limiting this experience, creates a deep desire to define structure, to define rules, and create order from the chaos.
It’s said that the job of an infant is to “eat, sleep, cry, and poop”, frequently attempting to do two of these tasks simultaneously. At least, that’s how my sister describes my nephew…. I would herald that a baby’s real job is to observe.
A baby’s brain is designed to be highly receptive to experiences. We learn the patterns of the world and how it works by constantly watching the chaos around us. Everything we know, and everything we do at this age is in reaction to something else. In fact, we don’t even realize that we are our own unique person. That comes somewhere between 6 and 18 months of age.
Once we recognize ourselves, and realize that we too are a person, our brains progress to figuring out what we should know and how we should act. From around 18 months until about 4 years old, we begin to test our environment. These are the “terrible twos”. We ask a lot of questions, act out, and throw temper tantrums. We push and test everything. It’s a frustrating time for parents, but it’s easy to forget that your children don’t know any better. This is literally how they learn.
The best analogy I’ve heard is that a two year old is like a blind person entering a room for the first time: they’re going to bump into things, they’re going to stumble around aimlessly, and push at every wall, every surface, and every structure in an attempt to define their reality. How we react to our children during this time teaches them about social conventions, about boundaries, and about themselves.
Personal development through influence
So, people are receptive to attention because its how we learn, and how we didn’t die. As society has progressed, so has the way in which we utilize feedback, but the underlying mechanism – the neurological responses to attention – have remained the same.
Who we are begins as an amalgamation of the people around us. Even when we strike out on our own, we never lose that receptiveness; it just evolves. As we mature, we are influenced less and less by casual interactions, and more and more by those who we consider friends. See: Communities, Memes, and Influence to the 3rd Degree for an explanation of that process.
If we’re lucky, our desire to know more and ask “why” will never go away. Our brains develop by incredible amounts through infancy, but development should never stop.
Lead-in photo credit: Fadzly @ Shutterhack