On working toward Active Focus: in Infancy and in Adulthood

On working toward Active Focus: in Infancy and in Adulthood:

At birth, a child’s mind is tabula rasa; he has the potential of awareness — the mechanism of a human consciousness — but no content. Speaking metaphorically, he has a camera with an extremely sensitive, unexposed film (his conscious mind), and an extremely complex computer waiting to be programmed (his subconscious). Both are blank. He knows nothing of the external world. He faces an immense chaos which he must learn to perceive by means of the complex mechanism which he must learn to operate.

If, in any two years of adult life, men could learn as much as an infant leans in his first two years, they would have the capacity of genius. To focus his eyes (which is not an innate, but an acquired skill), to perceive the things around him by integrating his sensations into percepts (which is not an innate, but an acquired skill) to coordinate his muscles for the task of crawling, then standing upright then walking — and, ultimately, to grasp the process of concept-formation and learn to speak — these are some of an infant’s tasks and achievements whose magnitude is not equaled by most men in the rest of their lives.

These achievements are not conscious and volitional in the adult sense of the terms: an infant is not aware, in advance, of the process he has to perform in order to acquire these skills, and the processes are largely automatic. But they are acquired skills, nevertheless, and the enormous effort expended by an infant to acquire them can be easily observed. Observe also the intensity the austere, unsmiling seriousness with which an infant watches the world around him. (If you ever find, in an adult, that degree of seriousness about reality, you will have found a great man.) [Ayn Rand, article “The Comprachicos” in The Objectivist 1970, page 883]

In our infancy, all of us had to learn and automatize the skill of integrating into percepts the material provided by our various sense organs. It was a natural, painless process which — as we can infer by observing infants — we were eager to learn. But medical science has recorded cases of children who were born blind and later, in their youth or adulthood, underwent an operation that restored their sight. Such persons are not able to see, i.e., they experience sensations of sight, but cannot perceive objects. For example, they recognize a triangle by touch, but cannot connect it to the sight of a triangle; their sight conveys nothing to them. The ability to see is not innate — it is a skill that has to be acquired. But the material provided by these persons’ other senses is so thoroughly integrated and automatized that they are unable instantly to break it up to add a new element, vision. This integration now requires such a long, difficult process of retraining that few of them choose to undertake it. These few succeed, after a heroically persevering struggle. The rest give up, preferring to stay in their familiar world of touch and sound — to remain sightless for life.

An unusual kind of moral strength and of personal ambition (i.e., of self-esteem) is required to regain one’s sight: a profound love of life, a passionate refusal to remain a cripple, an intense dedication to the task of achieving the best within one’s reach. The reward is commensurate. [ibid, page 919-920]