Day 048 - Imprinting

Submitted by Sam on 8 July, 2011 - 00:33

As genes cannot possibly encode a human's complete value system, our brains have evolved general purpose machinery, such as mirror-neurons, as a means to acquire and transmit goals and values from one person to another. A child therefore not only has to learn about causes and effects itself, but has also to internalize a coherent system of values, and there is no way for it to do so without basing it on a pre-existing model. The child therefore typically constructs its value system from those models expressed by older individuals, and most typically the ideals, values and goals provided by its parents.

Strong bonds of childhood attachment have therefore evolved in order to keep children within the protective and didactic sphere of its parents, giving the child every opportunity to learn and construct an understanding of what should be classed as good and bad. The strength of these filial bonds also ensure that the child isn't exposed to too large a number of close adult role-models, which could potentially result in a fragmentary pastiche of influence that would not result in a coherent personality. Instead, the attachment mechanism restricts the child's attention to only a few very close (genetically) models, simplifying the child's task.

Marvin Minsky has suggested that the strong attachment-bonds between human children and parents could be based on memories which are rapid to form but extremely slow to degrade, perhaps using memory structures descended from the forms of learning called “imprinting”, which is where some very young animals such as chicks, ducklings and goslings quickly 'imprint' a recognition of their parents in the early days of their life. Minsky reasons that whilst primates and humans don't actually imprint in this way, infants and parents do develop an analogous bond serving the same evolutionary purpose of providing offspring with a strong role-model as the basis of their personalities, and the foundation of their value system.

Minsky's postulation draws attention to a spectrum of behavioural patterns, ranging from the purely innate to the fully-learned. In many animals, innate behavioural mechanisms provide the methods to learn new behaviours, just as a kitten has the instinct to hunt a rat, but must learn how to follow it from its mother. The brain's innate actions facilitate the learning process, and help to maintain a proximity to the object of its attachment, affording the infant a good chance of survival.

In less complex animals, the hard-wired ability to rapidly imprint usually leads to an immediate recognition of the animal's parent, helping to protect the child from potentially threatening events that the adult can help protect against. However, as Austrian naturalist Konrad Lorenz showed in the mid-20th century, imprinting is a very rigid mechanism for forging filial bonds, and is vulnerable to attribution errors. Lorenz discovered that the greylag geese he reared right from hatching would treat him like the parent, imprinting him as the first sensory object that they met. The geese would follow him around, and as adults would court him in preference to other greylag geese. Mammals have a much more robust method of forming parental bonds, which are more complex and generate bonds which are strong and long-lasting, ensuring that children are likely to see their parents (and often their mother) as the ultimate protector and provider; a ready-made consolidated value machine ripe for emulation.

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