Monday, April 07, 2014

The Incredible Shrinking Kid

Tania Lombrozo's newest post at NPR reminded me of a phenomenon I've often noticed: After going away on a trip for several days, when I return home it seems to me that my children have grown enormously over those few days!

It's not that they've actually grown, of course. My hypothesis is this: During my time away, my memory of my children grows a bit vaguer. Whereas my memory of them when I come home tonight might be an average of their appearance over the last few days, my memory when I come home after a week away might be an average of their appearance over a longer span of time -- maybe a month or two. Then when I return, they seem to have done a month's worth of growing in just that one week. The effect has been most striking during the periods my children have grown fastest (infancy to early childhood, and then my son's incredible middle-school growth spurt).

I'm not sure I'd test this hypothesis by drawing lines on the wall, as the researchers did in the article Lombrozo discusses. I suspect that my memory of my children's height is much more accurate than can be measured by wall markings -- e.g., that I'd easily notice an inch of growth, even if I might be off by several inches if asked to estimate their heights on a blank wall. A more valid measure, if it can be done right, might be to artificially age a picture by tweaking it slightly toward or away from the kindchenschema (the characteristic infantile facial features that slowly fade as we age).


Eddy Nahmias said...

Last week, an old friend who hadn't seen my 12-year-old son in three years commented on how big he'd gotten. I looked at my son from my friend's perspective and suddenly saw how big he'd gotten. It was a weird experience. He's away this week, so I'll also test if he seems remarkably bigger when I see him next. Meanwhile, are most people as bad as me at remembering what their children looked like when they were toddlers or infants?

Callan S. said...

Maybe it's a case of the part of the brain that evaluates these things simply being blind to the time periods between samples. So to it, even if a week or two weeks has passed it justs seems like a day has passed. Thus an apparent discrepancy occurs.

This never ended up getting in the way of reproduction and so it never got refined to take time into account.

clasqm said...

@Eddy Nahmias: "He's grown so tall" is a socially acceptable remark. It's the one thing you are allowed to say about other people's children. If you saw my 12 year old son and remarked "Acne starting up, eh?" you'd be a boor. If you told my 12 year old daughter "I see those breasts are starting to grow" I'd throw you out of the house so fast you'd only bounce once. But height is safe. They're still growing, therefore they must be taller than the last time you saw them. Remarking on children's height as if it is a minor miracle is semantically meaningless social grooming.

clasqm said...

I'm not sure that the hindbrain is good enough at math to average out heights over a month, given that children don't grow that much in thirty days (except boys, who tend to grow in spurts, then stand still for long periods).

Alternative idea: you file away the image of your child under the category "child". That category has attributes such as "human", "immature", and "short"

Under normal circumstances the image is updated daily with new data and overrides the category attributes to provide a more or less accurate mental representation, but when you are away, the attributes slowly start to dominate and distort the representation. Obviously there is a limit to this - you don't return home after a year astonished not to see them as newborns. How the equillibrium point is determined remains a mystery.

Dress that up with some Kantian terminology and I think it should work.

BTW, I've seen the process break down in a 70-year old woman with advanced Alzheimer's. She recognised her 50-year old son, all right - and every day she told him to make ready to go to school.