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Book Review - Blackwell Handbook of Childhood Cognitive Development
Blackwell Handbook of Childhood Cognitive Development
by Usha Goswami (Editor)
Blackwell, 2002
Review by Talia Welsh, Ph.D.
Sep 1st 2004

This extensive (761 pages) text on Childhood Cognitive Development contains a series of chapters (27 in all) written by many of the top names in the field of child cognitive psychology (Simon Baron-Cohen and Andrew N. Meltzoff to name but a few).  The chapters are organized into five parts which themselves seem somewhat randomly chosen except for Part I (Infancy the Origins of Cognitive Development).  This isn't to say the chapters themselves are problematic, in fact, the text is a wealth of information and contains clearly written, authoritative chapters on various aspects of child psychology, it is simply that the book is essentially a collection of individually-authored articles and not a systematic text.  Instead of beginning with a discussion of just what "Childhood Cognitive Development" is and the paradigms prominent in the text, the text oddly enough ends with the only chapters that deal with "childhood cognitive development" as a whole (Part V: Models of Cognitive Development).  Thus, this is a text for those already reasonably well informed with cognitive psychology.

Since it would be impossible to provide a review of such a long text which deals with hundreds of examples, experiments and internal theoretical conflicts, let me highlight a few chapters to give the reader of the review an idea of the kinds of discussions present in the text. 

The text begins with two chapters (really "articles" would be more appropriate) on early infant cognition of self and other.  The first "Imitation as a Mechanism of Social Cognition:  Origins of Empathy, Theory of Mind, and the Representation of Action" is by Andrew N. Meltzoff whose 1970's research on neonatal imitation revolutionized the conception of infants as being largely unaware and unreactive to the external world.  Meltzoff and others discovered, infants are not only aware of the external world they can actually control their facial gestures and "imitate."  The author of this review has read numerous pieces by Meltzoff summarizing his views of the relevance of neonatal imitation and found this chapter to be one of the better summaries. 

Meltzoff argues that neonatal imitation provides a justification for "starting state" nativism.  Meltzoff's theory is that infants come to the world with an innate set of capacities that allow for self and other recognition (instead of self and other recognition being a later, culturally relative, development).  This grounds his theory that infants have a "Theory of Mind."  The second chapter by György Gergely "The Development of Understanding Self and Agency" takes issue with the kind of nativism presented in authors like Meltzoff.  In particular, Gergelyi disagrees with the theory that an intersubjective awareness is present at birth.  Gergelyi claims that research demonstrates that infants do seem to be able to understand goal directed behavior.  Nonetheless, he argues that one need not appeal to any kind of mentalism to explain this and other types of infant behavior.  For instance, Gergelyi notes on page thirty-nine that rats also display the same abilities to attribute goal-directed attention, but one does not assume they have a theory of mind, even a primal theory of mind.

Further on in the text, in part II, Henry M. Wellman's "Understanding the Psychological World:  Developing a Theory of Mind" argues that even though four-to-five year olds understand false beliefs, an understanding of one's own mind as a mind occurs much later—at seven-to-ten years old.  This distinguishes Wellman from the claims of Meltzoff and others.  Wellman argues for a more universal approach to thinking about innate characteristics distinguishing himself from the approaches of Meltzoff and Fodor. 

Interesting research in the differences between children with autism and those without are explored in chapter 22 "The Exact Mind: Empathizing and Systemizing in Autism Spectrum" (Simon Baron-Cohen, Sally Wheelwright, John Lawson, Rick Griffin, and Jacqueline Hill).  The authors return to the issue of "minds" with a summary of how to deal with the cognitive differences present in autism and normal children.  One theory, "mindblindness," argues that, descriptively speaking, autistic persons have deficits in empathy precisely because they fail to understand the minds of others (and even their own minds). 

Finally, the last section includes some of the most interesting work as to how to approach the child's cognitive development globally, rather than simply addressing a particular issue or time period of life.  Attention to facts and the desire avoiding making overblown philosophical claims dominates the "scientific" ethos of cognitive psychology.  However, one wonders how possible this endeavor is when dealing with such nebulous terms as "mind" given the brief mention of a few chapters above.  Indeed, one is struck by a 761 page text on childhood development with only 100 pages being devoted to development overall—that is, with the theory of cognitive development itself rather that a particular part of development.  I would argue a handbook would do well to begin with an analysis of the dominant models or at minimum a discussion of the value-laden terms at play in the various authors. 

To illustrate my point, if one takes the very short list of articles illustrated above one sees how a simple set of terms and ideas has no basic reference point and thus it is hard to really compare theories and authors.  It appears that just what Meltzoff is doing is portrayed differently in each author that cites him.  Meltzoff himself does not seem to think he holds as strong of a position as Wellman and Gergelyi take him to hold.  It appears that each author is left to slightly revise the metapsychological terms at play.  One cannot say that Meltzoff's own opinion of his work is right since there is no larger theory one is working in to establish what right and wrong mean.  Without some kind of clear, consistently articulated set of positions, one feels quite lost trying to understand the relevance of each particular study within the larger context of development. 

Although many aspects of Piaget's theory (and Freud's although psychoanalysis is largely absent) of child development are refuted by the various authors, a void is left where no one seems to have developed a coherent alternative to understanding development as a whole.  It seems the generally accepted theory is a negative one:  Freud was extremely mistaken; Piaget was largely mistaken.  One simply cannot work from the ground up since one doesn't even know what the "ground" is. 

Nonetheless, the Blackwell Handbook of Childhood Cognitive Development is a useful text with an extensive list of references invaluable to the student or researcher of cognitive childhood psychology.  I can highly recommend it to anyone interested in the subject. 


© 2004 Talia Welsh




Talia Welsh, Ph.D., Department of Philosophy, The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga