Tiny Foragers: How Do We Know What’s Safe to Eat?

The Huffington Post:

It’s the holiday season, and we’ll soon be decorating our home with greenery — holly sprigs, poinsettia, maybe a mistletoe, and of course the tree, probably some kind of spruce. We’ll have young kids around, and most of this greenery is benign. But some of these plants are toxic, possibly even deadly, if eaten. So what we are doing in effect is creating a treacherous world for our youngest revelers to explore.

Recreating, really. Our holiday home will be a microcosm of the ancient world in which our early ancestors lived and died. Throughout evolutionary history, humans have gathered leaves and berries to eat, but they have done this with little information to guide their choices. Poisonous plants don’t advertise themselves with color or shape or texture, so early foraging was a very costly guessing game. How did our forebears know which plants to collect and which to avoid? And how do young children do that today?

Yale psychological scientist Annie Wertz wondered if ancient humans and modern kids might share some sort of cognitive mechanism for making such judgments. Perhaps today’s children inherited some deep-wired “rules” that allow them to minimize their risk in a varied world of vegetation. Wertz and her Yale colleague Karen Wynn suspected that young children are learning about plants from observing others in their social world — their parents, for example. But it’s not simple imitation of adults, as any parent knows. They decided to explore just how young children learn this crucial skill.

Read the whole story: The Huffington Post

Wray Herbert is an author and award-winning journalist who writes two popular blogs for APS, We’re Only Human and Full Frontal Psychology. Follow Wray on Twitter @wrayherbert.

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