Thoughts On “Psych lessons from one of Yale’s most popular classes”

Alex Niemi
5 min readMar 4, 2023

I was on the road today and was, of course, listening to NPR in order to pass the time. Their Think show was on at the time and the host was interviewing Paul Bloom, a psychology professor at U. Toronto as well as a professor emeritus at Yale. He’s also written a book recently.

How can people that are “experts” in their field — people that have all of the prestige and credentials and titles — achieve such a level of success without having any capacity for critical or unique thinking. Perhaps I’m being too tough on the guy but half of what he said/postulated is completely incorrect and the other half is so rudimentary that he’s simply stating the obvious. So, Paul Bloom, let me correct you on a few things…

Readers, you’ll have to forgive me here, I’m going to paraphrase some of Paul’s responses to the host’s questions because I couldn’t find a written transcript of the content online and I’m not willing to listen to it again.

First, the difference between humans and animals is ABSOLUTELY NOT that ONLY humans can create, teach, learn, and use complex and abstract language. Many animals do this. The languages of thousands of different species of birds are complex, unique, nuanced, evolving, and taught/learned in much the same way that our human languages and dialects are. It is the immense ego of humans that blinds us to this. Because we cannot yet understand the language of most/many animals, we assume that our language is somehow different, more unique, and more sophisticated; it is not. Someday, science and perhaps ML/AI or related technologies will reveal this… we’re just not there yet.

In my opinion, there is no categorical difference between humans and animals. It’s a difference of degree, not kind. However, we’re always searching for a difference because IF there is NOT a difference, then the daily atrocities that we inflict on the poor animals of this planet, would be unforgiveable (which they should be). We’d need protections and laws established that safeguard the lives and health of animals. Animals would have to be granted rights and be treated with dignity. We’d have to stop abusing, killing, and eating them. This will never happen. Thus, we will always be searching for a “difference” between us and them so that we can continue our disgusting behavior.

In the past, cross-sections of the human population were also considered “animals” and we fabricated distinctions that justified our behaviors towards them. Obviously, we were wrong then… just as we are now.

The closest thing to a “difference” between humans and animals that I have consistently observed is the following: there are certain emotions that humans regularly experience (due to their own thoughts) that animals do NOT experience without external influence; namely: shame and guilt (and other closely related emotions). A dog that sneaks food off the counter will be extremely pleased with herself until you scold her and cause her to feel guilty and ashamed. Whereas, I sit here writing this feeling somewhat ashamed of myself for being so brazen to think that I could possibly correct an Emeritus Professor of psychology. I also feel guilty for not getting on the treadmill today… I have these emotions without anyone [presently] influencing me to feel this way. Now, having said all that, I am being presumptuous in my assertion that animals — such as my pretty but sneaky dog — do not feel shame or guilt. I don’t actually know that; I can’t, nobody can, yet.

Second, when the host asks Paul about Infantile Amnesia — the concept that humans typically can’t recall (or perhaps form) memories before the age of two or three — he cites two possible explanations. If I remember correctly, they were something like the following (paraphrasing):

  1. At a very young age, we don’t yet have the capacity for language, and because our memories are story and language-based, we have trouble forming memories.
  2. Something to do with the biochemical or developmental or physical [lack of] ability to form memories at a young age.

He actually goes on to state that people who do recall memories from very early childhood are somehow confused or incorrect about their recollections. My god, the ego of this guy!

Paul, it’s definitely NOT #1 above. Most people’s memories are not in the form of words and language. We remember emotions/feelings, images, faces, and their associations with each other at specific times. Our memories are a recreation of the salient parts of some past visual and emotional landscape that we saw and experienced. Language has NOTHING, absolutely nothing, to do with it. This is an anecdotal example, but how many times in your life could you picture an actor’s face (e.g. from a movie that you enjoyed) but couldn’t recall their name? Many. What about the converse, how many times have you experienced hearing the name “Tom Cruise” without being able to recall EXACTLY how he looks instantaneously and without any effort. Never.

Paul, it may have something to do with #2 but that’s not the root-cause. It’s simply the mechanism that serves the underlying reason.

The real reason that we don’t remember things from early childhood (birth to two years old) is because it’s a traumatic and tumultuous time for us. Not remembering this period of our lives is an evolutionary feature that facilitates healthy brain and emotional development later in life.

For most of the time that Homo Sapiens roamed the earth, child-birth was relatively dangerous for the mother. And, we were tribal creatures. And, the age at which women and men would have sex and reproduce coincided with when they were both the most virile, attractive, spontaneous, and aggressive. For males, this period of their life was the most dangerous — they were full of testosterone, willing to take risks, willing to fight adversaries to the death, etc. Thus, for all of these reasons, historically, children often lost parents when they were still very young. But, because we were tribal creatures, others would step up, and take over as surrogate parents. Evolutionarily, children that don’t remember their earliest “parents” have a better chance of healthy brain development than those that do, assuming that both groups lost parents early-on.

Another reason for Infantile Amnesia (closely related to the above) is that early childhood is extremely confusing. Essentially, we go from being a fish under the water (the womb) to a biped mammal living and breathing air in a whole new world. EVERYTHING about humans — all of our behaviors, habits, idiosyncrasies, defects, beliefs, values, desires, etc. — exists for a single reason: preservation of our identity… which equates to Freud’s concept of the ego and superego, I guess, but I’m not a psychologist.

If we were able to remember the experience of being born, transitioning environments (womb to world), and then gulping air in a gaseous new environment for which we haven’t yet formed any conceptual understanding, we would be traumatized beyond repair… forever destined to suffering with an unmaintainable identity and an irreconcilable set of inner and outer-worldly experiences. Can you imagine how damaging and destructive to our future egos/identities those early memories would be? As-is, most of us struggle with our identities on a daily basis… and continually make decisions that we regret in preservation of our egos without even realizing it.

How fucked up would we all be if we remembered being a fish?

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Alex Niemi

I'd write more if I didn't spend all of my time coding.