My nine-month-old baby is definitely in the oral stage of cognitive development. Just before sunrise this morning when she and I were the only ones awake in our dark house, I handed her a small, flashlight to play with. I thought she would like watching the projected light move by her direction. But she didn’t give a hoot about the light’s movements–she just stuffed the thing, rather awkwardly, light side in, into her wide-open little mouth. She tests everything this way. She’s learned puke-green pea puree from a baby food jar is bad. If she sees it coming–she purses her lips tight. She’s decided pretzel sticks sprinkled with sea salt are worth holding tightly. It’s like her mouth is directly connected to her brain’s dopamine generators. When an object or texture feels good in her mouth, dopamine is released in her growing brain and the moment turns into a pleasurable memory–an Invariant Representation or hook for pleasurable experiences to come. When something is gross enough to spit out there’s no such rush of dopamine. The momentary displeasure turns into a different sort of learned experience–knowing what to avoid. Dopamine provides teaching signals to parts of the brain responsible for acquiring new behavior.
My baby’s dopaminergic engine is running on turbo at this time in her young life. Her capacity to recover from downers is mythological, even phoenician. She doesn’t stay down after a displeasure, no matter how intense. She just flies again into the unknown assuming new pleasures and new life. Creative people retain–or in some cases re-acquire, this ability to learn from mistakes and move on, fast. The more tries, the better. Dopamine island hopping.
Several years ago, I finally bought a vacuum cleaner I liked. It has no bags to empty and sucks up popcorn or long hair without a glitch even years after its first use. Marine engineer and architect, James Dyson, created a better vacuum by using the same cyclone technology used in saw mills to increase his vacuum’s suction power lifespan to–virtually endless. Dyson, like most inventors, first made a garage-full of very bad devises. He could not stay depressed about mistakes for long but he did not repeat mistakes either. The dopamine engine in Dyson’s brain worked overtime signaling and directing towards his final “perfect” vacuum system. Dyson says,
I made 5,127 prototypes of my vacuum before I got it right. There were 5,126 failures. But I learned from each one. That’s how I came up with a solution. So I don’t mind failure.
Babies move on quickly, as do successful inventors. But when creative-types linger over mistakes rather than moving forward quickly, they end up parched for lack of dopamine. Then learning from mistakes is no longer natural or endurable. James Dyson says,
I’ve always thought that schoolchildren should be marked by the number of failures they’ve had. The child who tries strange things and experiences lots of failures to get there is probably more creative.
Counting mistakes?! Rocket on! I’ve made several just posting this blog. But who cares, I’m taking flight all over again.
Talk to you tomorrow when I’ll need it again.