Have you played Peek-a-Boo? Lately? I’ve recently come to have a greater appreciation for the game. I was at a seminar on early childhood development and the presenter was discussing the value of Peek-a-Boo. (BTW, contrary to the old saying, there IS a school for learning to be a parent. I attend. I even have a license to parent. Scary, huh?)

The adult covers her or his face and suddenly uncovers. “Peek-a-boo!” The baby laughs, the adult covers up and the process repeats. Both players seem to enjoy the game immensely.

What’s going on below the surface is that the baby is learning the notion of permanence. At first, the game seems to involve an adult appearing from nowhere, over and over. Eventually, the child learns that the adult has been there the whole time, covering up and uncovering. Peek-a-Boo!

Being able to grasp the concept of permanence; that the adult – or anything else for that matter – continues to exist when out of sight, is a function of the higher brain. The notion that the only things that exist are those we can see is a function of the limbic brain, sometimes called the reptile brain or the animal brain. The shift in consciousness from the limbic to the higher brain is what separates us from animals – or not.

There are times for all of us when the limbic brain takes over. Usually it’s a time of great stress. The limbic brain is where the “fight or flight” response lives. When we panic, it’s the limbic brain that’s doing the thinking. One reason the decisions we make in panic are so reliably poor.

If a child progresses normally, he or she will graduate from Peek-a-Boo to hiding behind a parent’s leg when a stranger arrives on the scene. (“If he can’t see me, I’m invisible.”) A few years on and the child plays “Hide and Seek” with friends. I suppose that’s a competition among seven-year-olds to see who has best mastered the concept of permanence.

I start noticing myself slipping into limbic brain. It happened last month as I drove up a twisting dirt road up Pike’ Peak (no guardrails, oncoming traffic, 500-foot drops). It happens in social situations when I have to introduce someone whose name I have forgotten.

What does it all mean? A few things, I think. On a concrete level, it means neglected babies, ones that do not have the benefit of endless rounds of Peek-a-Boo, develop more slowly than their more cared-for peers. They come later to the concept of permanence and have difficulty with other abstract concepts, like fairness and justice. More of their lives are dominated by their limbic, reptile, animal brains and therefore, they act more like animals. Fear and instinct rule their lives and their fighting and/or fleeing are inappropriate responses to the complex situations modern life throws at us.

It is often these neglected children who commit gruesome crimes because they do not have the tools to rise above the pitiful state neglect – and all too often, abuse – has left them in. So when you read that a court-ordered psychological profile of a person accused of a bloody-minded crime says that he or she was doomed to such acts by poor parenting, it’s not just the mollycoddles of bleeding-heart society. It’s a scientifically described fact, same as the prediction that salt will rust your car.

For the rest of us, who successfully negotiated the journey from Peek-a-Boo to Hide and Seek and beyond, where does the lesson end? We, individually, have learned about equality and justice and fairness, but at the same time we see society’s highest rewards heaped on those who operate from the reptile brain (think Wall Street, think Washington and Moscow). Like the neglected child that grew into heartless criminal, we are – to some extent – the victims of the society that created us. More importantly, we ARE that society, a society that too often operates from a reptile brain.

We are less than the sum of our parts, but as long as the guilt can be parceled out somewhere else, we shrug and go along. If 47 million uninsured Americans are safely out of sight, we can pretend they don’t exist. If one third of one percent of our population has to spend year after year on the far side of the globe, fighting our wars for oil, we can keep buying plastic trash. If we think we will be securely dead by the time the worst effects of global warming are visited on our neighborhood, we can keep believing they will never happen.

© Mark Floegel, 2009

One Comment

  1. Posted 8/27/2009 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    Random comments on your commentary: As always (again!) thank you, Mark, for your commentary. Did you know that many many people who would say they care about the environment have no idea what is required to make plastic? So, they keep buying it. I wonder if the Greenies should start an educational campaign. I shall ponder it and ask my Greenies. Did you see my Facebook share of the movie trailer for Drying For Freedom–a film about clotheslines? Check it out. And HEALTHCARE! Don’t get me started. Egad. My recent scare re: breast cancer potential while on medicaid really woke me up about coverage issues. Have you seen the hilariously simple and true YouTube video explaining “why we need government-run universal socialized health insurance”? Look it up. You won’t be disappointed. Peek-A-Boo is my favorite! That and This Little Piggy. 🙂

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