When we look back on the poor decisions we’ve made when we were younger, we’ll often use phrases such as “20/20 hindsight” or “if I only knew then what I know now”. The implication, of course, is that we acquire knowledge, wisdom and insight over time. This is true, but I also believe that there is an opposing force that is working against us. While we gain knowledge, we are simultaneously losing skills and innate abilities as we grow older – and at a faster rate.
Based on my own empirical observations, this the graph that I think best represents our simultaneous gain and loss. With our age along the x-axis, the red line represents our (as yet undocumented) innate abilities, and the blue line represents our cumulative knowledge and wisdom. We slowly gain knowledge and wisdom during our entire life, but we lose our innate abilities very rapidly. In fact, we just about everything is gone by the time we reach puberty. The most insidious thing is that we aren’t even aware of what we’re losing – that is, until now. During the past few years, I’ve noticed some of these innate abilities in myself and others, and decided to keep track of them. Here are a few of my own examples:
I remember one of my university professors telling our class that language acquisition should (ideally) begin at an early age. When a child is born s/he can pronounce phonemes that exist in all languages, and is therefore capable of speaking any language. If a child is exposed only to the phonemes that exist in English, then s/he will eventually lose the ability to pronounce other sounds, and over time, even the ability to detect them. Native French speakers can hear the difference between tu (you) and tout (all), but English speakers who haven’t been exposed to French at an early age will hear both sounds as “too” – which doesn’t sound like either tu or tout. Those who aren’t exposed to a foreign language early in life will never be able to speak it without an accent.
When my nephew was two years old, we were at my mom’s house, playing a game while sitting on her kitchen floor. I rolled a ball to him, and he caught it and rolled it back to me. I noticed that while my nephew was sitting, his legs were spread out almost 180 degrees. He was doing the splits from a sitting position – effortlessly. Intrigued, I decided that I would test my own flexibility, so as we rolled the ball back and forth to each other, I pushed my left leg out a couple of inches, and then did the same to my right leg, to see what I could still accomplish at my age. When my legs reached an angle of 70-75 degrees, the strain was considerable, and I had to stop. Between the age of two and my current age, the range of motion in my legs had decreased by over 100 degrees.
When I was visiting my brother, his daughter, who was two years old at the time, walked up to us and kept saying “doo dax”. We assumed it was baby talk, and thought it was cute. She wasn’t pleased with our response, so she kept repeating “doo dax”, more insistently. We realized that she wanted something, but none of the adults (including her parents) had any idea what it was. We thought that dax might mean “ducks”, so we found her toy duck and gave it to her. That wasn’t it, and it just made her more frustrated. After a few seconds, my five-year-old nephew walked into the room, heard his sister’s request, and very calmly said to her “No, you can’t have any fruit snacks right now”.
My nephew was three years old when he developed this uncanny ability to name cars. When we would take a walk through the neighbourhood, he would be able to name each car in the driveways or parked on the street. My sister and I just assumed that he was very good at recognizing and memorizing the logos. As we walked past one car parked on the other side of the street, he looked at it as said “That’s a Ford”. From his vantage point, he could see only the side of the car, and he wasn’t able to see the logo. There were also no words or other markings on the side of the car. When we finally walked far enough to see the back of the vehicle, sure enough, it was a Ford. I have no idea how he recognized the manufacturer merely by looking at the car from the side.
Around the same time, my nephew and I were playing with his Thomas The Tank Engine set. There are several different train engine characters, each with a different name, and a slightly different face. Personally, I can’t tell one from the other, even when I’m comparing them side by side. I have to look for the name printed on the bottom. My nephew wanted to play a guessing game with me. He showed me a train engine from a Thomas picture book, and I had to tell him who it was. It took me an average of four or five tries to guess the right name, much to his frustration. He, on the other hand, guessed each one correctly on the first try, and couldn’t understand why Uncle Bob was having so much trouble.
A few years ago, I was watching Beauty And The Beast on DVD. One of the special features was an interview with Paige O’Hara, the actress who voiced the Belle character. She commented that as a voice actress, she is generally unrecognized. She then said that she was in a supermarket one day and a little girl approached her and asked if she was Belle. The little girl had heard her speak and recognized her voice. Personally, I would never have been able to recognize her voice, especially if the actress was out of context – as a real person pushing a cart in a supermarket – and (presumably) saying words that aren’t in the Beauty And The Beast movie script.
When I was growing up, I had a number of children’s records (on vinyl) and a plastic children’s record player. My parents listened to their own “grown-up” music on the stereo or on the radio. When I was five or six years old, I remember hearing Yellow Submarine by The Beatles playing on the radio. My first thought was “why are they playing a children’s song on the radio? The radio is supposed to play only grown-up music”. When I was five, I knew that children’s songs and adult melodies sounded different, and although I couldn’t verbalize those melodic differences, I knew intuitively that Yellow Submarine was a children’s song, and that it shouldn’t be playing on the radio. Unfortunately I can no longer make that distinction; whatever perceptual ability I had back then is completely gone, and Yellow Submarine now sounds as “mature” as any other Beatles song.
I remember helping out at my nephew’s 8th birthday party. He invited all of his classmates, and it was held in an indoor playground. The cavernous room contained a wide assortment of items including jungle gyms, slides, bridges, mats and soft furniture. There were over 20 kids in the room, and they constantly running in every direction; I was sure that there would be a collision every few seconds. However, there weren’t any. Although their paths seemed unpredictable – to me, anyway – they instinctively avoided running into each other. This required incredible agility and split-second course changes, and I still have no idea how they managed this. However, I’m sure that I also possessed this ability when I was their age.
It’s comforting to think that we are continually learning new things, and that we are becoming wiser and more knowledgeable as we age. However, I’m no longer convinced that we are superior to our newborn selves. We were born with many perceptual abilities and we are losing them rapidly as we age. Some physical skills, like being able to do the splits, disappear from disuse, but others (in my opinion) vanish because we simply weren’t aware of them and hence didn’t realize what was slowly disappearing. I just happened to stumble across these examples, and decided to write them down rather than ignore them. To me, they are just scratching the surface – I have no idea what other perceptual abilities we were born with, or how many of these innate abilities have faded away because we neglected to notice them.
While we often look to older, accomplished people for inspiration, or as examples of what we can achieve, I think it’s time to look at the very young. They also represent all that we can be, if only we were able to recognize the talents we were given at birth, and not allow them to slip away.
Finally, have you experienced anything like this, in yourself while growing up, or perhaps while babysitting? If so, then please leave a detailed comment – I think it would be wonderful to catalogue some of our innate, long-lost abilities.