A Matter of Perspective

This morning, I was reading to my almost one-year-old son, Ethan, the timeless classic Goodnight Moon, when something extraordinary happened. For the sake of context, I should say that I’ve read Goodnight Moon at least 500 times over the last few years, first with my older son who is now 4, and more recently with my younger son. It’s a great book – classic prose and beautiful illustrations. I could probably recite it by heart. In fact, I’m so familiar with the book that I hardly pay attention anymore as I read it. I mindlessly say the words and flip through the pages, hoping that my boy is enjoying the book and the quality time spent with dad on the rocking chair.

It’s also worth noting that Ethan just started mumbling some of his first basic words. His extended repertoire includes the words “Baaaah” (bear) and “Baaaaal” (ball)… that’s about it.

So back to what happened this morning that was so crazy cool…

Ethan awoke at 6:00 am, as usual, with his screaming declarations to the world. I went in to get him out of his crib, change his diaper, and read him a few short books, before handing him over to Mommy and starting my day. There is a certain page in Goodnight Moon that reads “And a comb and a brush and a bowl full of mush.” On the page is a simple picture of a table with those three objects, illuminated by a lamp (see the embedded picture).

When we got to this page, Ethan insisted on turning the book upside down. Since he often grabs at the books I’m reading and tosses them on the floor or flips them over, I thought nothing of this. I simply turned the book back over and continued reading. When I finished the book, he clapped his hands and indicated that he wanted me to read it again. I did.

On the second pass, we arrived at the page with the comb and the brush and the bowl, and again Ethan grabbed the book and flipped it over to look at the picture upside down. Only this time, I noticed he was screaming Baaaah, Baaaah, Baaaah. What bear was he talking about I wondered? I began to stare at the picture, this time dissociating myself with the content of the book, which I of course know so well. I squinted to blur the image, allowing the details to recede to the background and all I was left with was the overall tone of the image. This is what I saw! My jaw dropped.

At this point in Ethan’s young life, he has internalized visual associations with a relative few objects. “Bear” is one of the big ones – not brushes or combs or bowls, lamps and tables sitting in that particular configuration. Ethan’s brain saw the combined image of a bear – even in its upside down state – and he turned the book over so that it would appear the right way.

A little later we tested him with the book a few more times to make sure this wasn’t a fluke and sure enough, it was not.

The moral of this story is this: Just because we have done something 1,000 times before or believe we know all there is to know about something, we can always find new ways to look at things by shifting our perspective and letting go of assumptions. Thank you Ethan for teaching Daddy an important lesson this morning!