Metaphor. A word as powerful as it is cliched. I learned firsthand of its power as I battled through a difficult decision recently. Read more »
If children could diagnose adults, what syndromes would they say afflicted us ?
Buyer’s remorse. Sour grapes. Rationalization. Self-justification. How do we feel after we’ve made a decision that was hard and came with significant consequences ?
Most of us are familiar with the story of the good samaritan, the man who stopped to help an injured enemy. Most don’t know of a relatively new experiment that demonstrated one facet of what enables us to be good samaritans.
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Maya is intensely curious about people and their interactions. When we go to a restaurant, she can’t stop swiveling around to try and see everybody who’s in the place. People next table are subject to intense scrutiny if they’re engaged in an animated conversation. “She’s your daughter”, Shanthala usually says when this happens. At times, Maya points at the people and asks us what they’re doing or tells us her thoughts on what’s going on or attempts to mimic their conversation. All this of course results in our gently hushing her and trying to get her to not stare at people so much or even point. Pointing is rude, we say, people don’t like being pointed at. She’s even more curious about the denizens closer to her age. If a child is crying, she stops everything she’s doing and stares at the child and the adult(s) involved at the scene. Sometimes, she gets right up in their face as the adults attempt to pacify or admonish the child. She then comes to us and pointing at the child informs us that the child was crying and asks us why. More hushing and more “please don’t point” statements.
At such times, I often wonder, at the origins of the rituals we ask Maya to engage in or desist from. Is the behavior universal or predominantly Western or Indian ? Is it quite old or was it relatively unknown as recently as when I was a child ? What about other animals, do they have similar behaviors ?
Yesterday, I came across an article in one of the blogs that I often follow, ICICI. The article was titled “Human avoidance in pointing: a cultural universal?” The author of the article wondered about the universality of pointing and the reasons for its taboo. He requested fellow anthropologists and other similar practitioners to respond. Reading the responses and the links to the papers that were put out and engaging in a little contemplation on my own provided interesting insights into yet another fascinating aspect of human and animal behavior.
Consider the following experiment. There are two opaque bags and into one, a person places some food. A chimpanzee is shown the two bags and two different things are tried. In one case, the bag with the food is pointed at by a person. In another case, the bag with the food is tilted so that the chimp can see the food. What do you think the chimp does in each case ? In a different experiment, instead of pointing or tilting, one of the experimenters deliberately marked the bag with food with a large X and clumsily dropped the marker into the other bag. Which bag do you think the chimp chose ? Now instead of a chimp, if a toddler is brought in and the experiment is repeated. What do you think the toddler does in each case ?
The chimps picked the right bag when the bag was either tilted or marked (they seemed to note that the dropping of the marker was accidental and ignored that and went for the bag with the X), but they failed to pick the right bag when it was only pointed at. Just to be clear, if one chimp stares at an external location, another chimp can follow the gaze and venture up to the spot targeted by the gaze, even looking back at the other chimp if there is nothing there. In other words, they can “project an imaginary line of sight through invisible space”. But they do not point or follow pointing. It appears that pointing is a human trait. This is fascinating.
As a parent, I engaged in pointing very early on with Maya. Naming various objects involved pointing. Current research seems to indicate that around their first birthday, infants begin to point to draw an adult’s attention at something that caught their eye. Researchers differentiate between two different ways infants use pointing. Infants point to get something, say “get me that ball daddy”, and they point to direct the adult’s attention at something of interest, say “look at that bird daddy” (I’m not saying they can verbalize bird or ball, of course). Interestingly, autistic kids only engage in the first kind of pointing (called protoimperative i.e. a rudimentary command) and not in the second (called protodeclarative i.e. a rudimentary declaration). Even apes raised by humans can apparently engage in protoimperative pointing but not in protodeclarative pointing. Postdeclarative pointing to achieve joint attention is considered by many to be a key step in infants developing a theory of mind (i.e. the knowledge that people have mental states which can lead to certain behaviors and that other’s may have mental states different from one’s own). As the author of the ICICI blog entry notes, pointing is a trait acquired in humans even before the onset of human language.
If pointing is such a key characteristic, why do we then dissuade its use as we grow older, i.e. why is pointing such a taboo ? There are several reasons given, all slight variations of each other, in my opinion. Pointing is calling attention to or singling a person out for some specific reason and the reason is usually not complimentary. Pointing seems entwined with blaming or accusing in our society. As the Dire Straits song goes, “When you point your finger ‘cuz your plan fell through, You got three more fingers pointing back at you”. And there is of course the well-known term “finger-pointing”. Further, the person pointed at, feels isolated and loses the safety of being invisible in a larger whole. Another possible reason is that pointing implies a dominant-to-subordinate relationship such as in a parent-child case. We point at our children and admonish them to not engage in some behavior. One commenter on the ICICI blog narrates an anecdote from Ecuador where a mother explained that it is dangerous for a child to point because of the evil eye of the person being pointed to. In short, pointing is very threatening.
So is it a universal taboo to not point ? One of the commentators to the ICICI blog article says that based on his work with the Yucatec Maya in Mexico, he doesn’t think they consider pointing taboo. But that’s about the only evidence I found that the taboo against pointing is not universal.
Pointing gets convoluted to get around the taboo of not pointing. People in Southeast Asia such as Laos and indigenous people in Southern America, Africa and Australia engage in “lower lip pointing“. The Vezo in Madagascar use a fully bent index finger to point at superiors and those they revere including whales. And of course, there is the Judas kiss.
Another fascinating piece of information that I learned is that there is a disorder called heterotopagnosia in which the patient is unable to point at someone else’s body parts. They pointed at their own body part when asked to point at another person’s body part. They had no problem grasping the other person’s body part, they just couldn’t point to it. The Neurocritic blog has more information about this strange malady.
Little did I know when I first started down this path, of the simple act of pointing.
I’m working on my poems and working with
my fingers not my head. Because my fingers
are the farthest stretching things from me.
Look at the tree. Like its longest branch
I touch the evening’s quiet breathing. Soundsof rain. The crackling heat from other trees.
The tree points everywhere. The branches can’t
reach to their roots though. Growing longer they
grow weaker also. Can’t make use of water.
Rain falls. But I’m working with these farthest stretching
things from me. Along my fingertips bare shoots
of days then years unfurl in the cold air. – Long Finger Poem by Jin Eun-Young
1. Twelve-month-olds point to share attention and interest, Liszkowski et al, 2004.
2. Understanding and sharing intentions: The origins of cultural cognition, Tomasello et al, 2005.
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