Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Confounding World: Feral Children

 Forget Tarzan. Forget Mowgli. 

Those stories of lore are malarky. 

Romulus & Remus
Echoes of feral children or, in times long past, feral peoples, have succeeded in permeating cultural traditions in perhaps every generation of storytellers. The idea balloons in our minds as something oddly romantic. How kind of those apes to raise that needy little boy. 'Gee-golly, what an opportunity that boy has had! He gets to see the world like no one else, and now we will dutifully acclimate him to the ways of modern man so he can share his learned wisdom with the myriads.'

We have only a handful of documented cases where a child either learned to live in the wild, or was enslaved by an upbringer who deprived the child of sensory interaction with the world. The results from such cases are much less happy-go-lucky than our imaginations would lay siege for.

The most famous case was perhaps one which sprung up from 19th century France in the form of a young boy named Victor. Victor was eleven or twelve when he was spotted on the outskirts of town by a woman who promptly reported the likes of the crazy child to local authorities. Using dogs, the boy was caught, and then plopped into the age of man. The story from this point forward is immortalized by Francois Truffaut's film, The Wild Child. His take on the situation peels out more with the same The Elephant Man-esque ode to the human spirit fervor that Lynch's later film mastered. The cause of Victor is taken up by Dr. Jean Itard (played by Truffaut) himself, the unsinkable doctor who successfully rehabilitates the boy to french society. The film is noted for its ending, in which the good doctor has finished his work with the child, and we watch Victor ascending a spiral staircase with his new foster mother. The idea from this, of course, is that now that the hard work of assimilation into culture was completed for Victor, 'the sky's the limit!' Huzzah!

Reality tells a bleaker tale. Dr. Itard was able to make a good deal of progress with Victor, but language never came. For some reason, when it came to speaking and reading, language simply didn't stick.

In modern times in America, we have the story of Genie. Genie was a little girl who was found to be locked in a room her whole life. When she was found, the adolescent girl was wearing a diaper. Upon being found out, Genie's father shot himself. Her mother claimed her and her daughter were both enslaved by the now dead man. An insightful doctor admitted that when Genie was discovered by doctors and scientists, "She had a personal quality that seemed to illicit rescue fantasies." Here was a girl who was going to be put through the ringer of every test imaginable.

The scientific trick of feral children is that you can't easily test for such environments. No person will isolate a child from society for years just to see what happens to their brain. So, when little Genie showed up in 1970 -- studying her was an opportunity that couldn't be overlooked.

With her, also -- the same results as Victor.

She could learn many things, but language was an insurmountable hurdle. A brain-scan of Genie showed that significant parts of her brain revealed 'sleeping-packed neurons'; packets of neurons that are bundled together and unused.

Watch a Nova special about Genie HERE.

Why is this perplexing? Why do feral children get quick access into my wonderful list of enigmas? It's the 'what-ifs'!

Why can't these children learn to talk? As of now, the evidence shows that if a child is not around a language speaking society by ages five or six, well then, it's too late. The brain hard-wires itself down, and then it's to be no more. The limits have been established. The caps are in place. The sky isn't the limit after all.

Remember that time during The Matrix when Morpheus apologizes to Neo -- he tells him he broke his own rule -- that people can't handle the switch out of the matrix after a certain age? Is there authentic truth to that? If we can't handle language acquisition after a certain age, what else do we hard-wire ourselves against?

Is there anything we are missing out on? Is there something that we would understand better, if only we encountered it during our formulative years? And what of telling a child about God? What happens to the brain of a child that is taught to believe in God from toddler age on upwards, and what of the child that is deprived of such ideas? If a child is brought to believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, is he more apt then to beliefism over skepticism?

A bit further down that rabbit-hole before I finish -- what of speaking in tongues? If tongues can be some sort of angelic language that is bestowed from above, are we hardwired to never be able to comprehend it on our own because we missed out during the growing years? Okay, that one's a stretch. But logically, it seems theoretically possible that the parent can greatly affect what hardwiring goes on due to what one's child is exposed to. If you raise a child only on logic and mathematics, trying your best to leave out the arts, do you create a creature that is more akin to a computer than to an emo-rockstar? Conversely, if the world of the senses is denied, and in its stead only the fantastic is pushed in -- what happens then?

Perhaps it is due to classic Disney movie indoctrination and the American spirit, but my instinct is to want to believe that anything we put our minds to we can accomplish. Sadly, the failures of language acquisition in the lives of these feral kids shows otherwise. As it turns out, when you wish upon a star, you better be younger five for it to work.


As long as I'm touching on this topic I would be chagrin not to mention the great Werner Herzog's contribution to the conversation. His 1974 film, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser covered this very subject matter.

All that anyone really need know of the film is this: the title of this Herzogian film in German directly translates to, "Every man for himself and God against them all." Yep. That's the title.



    Theres a ton of these sorts of stories out there...

  2. A very interesting read, and quite helpful to my current studies, thank you!