Freud claimed that we forget our childhood, not because our brain is not powerful enough to retain memories, but because our first three years of childhood are so daunting and difficult that our brain buries its memories for rest of the life.

As an example, consider a baby drinking his/her mother's milk. Can we ever be sure that it is enjoying it? Maybe the milk is not delicious, or even has a horrible taste, but the baby can't talk about it and can't refuse it because of its hunger. Maybe it is just suffering while drinking it.

Another example could be when we hug a baby. Maybe he/she is afraid of height and likes to crawl on the floor. But he/she can't communicate with us.

How can we ever get sure that a young baby is suffering or has pleasure?

  • Does it matter to this question that babies can nurse while sleeping? Jul 20, 2011 at 17:58
  • Wouldn't know... If a baby is hit while sleeping, he or she will wake up. I would dare saying that if he was forcefully fed something unpleasant during sleep, a similar reaction would occur.
    – max0005
    Jul 20, 2011 at 19:13
  • 3
    This does not seem like a very serious or philosophical problem as formulated. Maybe you could clarify and provide some context here? For instance a theoretical formulation might abstract somewhat from the particular case of breastfeeding and ask after how (and to what degree) we can know the feelings (pleasures, desires) of young children, and perhaps others in general; you may also wish to make this a reference request asking for already-published philosophical perspectives on the question.
    – Joseph Weissman
    Jul 20, 2011 at 23:29
  • Let's see...We could, uh, try sampling breast milk some time after childhood when we'd remember the experience and be able to tell whether or not it was horrible? Seriously, the only thing I see that makes this question philosophy-related is the word "epistemologic" randomly thrown into the last sentence. Jul 21, 2011 at 4:42
  • @Joseph, you're such a good companion here. Thanks again for reformulating my question. I actually meant that. But I asked it in the form of an example. I changed the question. Thanks :) Jul 21, 2011 at 5:43

5 Answers 5


I think it normally doesn't. Nature has its way of associating feelings of pleasure to "good" things and unpleasant feelings to "bad" things. Just think about it: whenever we are wounded (physically, emotionally, or psychologically), we instantly recognize a sensation of pain. On the other hand, when extinguishing our thirst or hunger, when we are cool on a hot day or warm up on a snowy winter day, hug a friend or are in a relationship, then we are "awarded" feelings of pleasure.

In fact, given that a baby's will is insufficient to allow him or her to overcome his or her instincts, an "non-tasty" milk would cause him/her to reject food, hence posing a serious threat to his/her own development. Even if, in the end the stimulus given by hunger would overcome the natural rejection due to the taste, the baby would still risk under-nourishment.

There of course probably are exceptions, but I confide in the knowledge that modern science has found a way around them too...

  • +1 because of good reasoning with the concept of "under-nourishment" @max0005. But still we're not free from doubting the existence of an objective pleasure. Jul 20, 2011 at 19:16
  • Hi @Saeed Neamati , yes, that's right, pleasure is objective, but I would dare add, to a certain extent. Can we say that it is statistically normal for people to feel pleasure when eating when hungry, sleeping when tired, loving (At least, physical forms of love, if you excuse the explicitness...) etc... Such idea is hard to confute. Why is that, because they are actions necessary to the continuation of life, and life has a way of preserving itself, wouldn't you agree? If newborn pleasure was subjective, then we'd risk having a child who didn't enjoy eating, which obvious consequences.
    – max0005
    Jul 20, 2011 at 19:22
  • There are cases where the child rejects or is allergic to breast milk. This does not prevent them from taking formula. Nor does it prevent there instinctive desire to suckle even though experience should tell them that they will not want the result.
    – Chad
    Jul 21, 2011 at 13:00
  • The pleasure derives from satisfying the instinct of feeding oneself, not from the process of digestion, which comes in a second moment and halts hunger. In that sense, the baby's instinct of survival is working pefectly well. Why is not working in a further physical process, which is however detached and independent from the first. Remembering previous instances of pain deriving from drinking milk would require a level of abstraction the baby is not capable of.
    – max0005
    Jul 21, 2011 at 13:06
  • @max0005 - I think most would argue that the pleasure is mostly derived from the taste and tactile sensations of the food. Take a steak and put it in a blender and it mostly tastes the same but the feeling is wrong. If it was just the satating of hunger that derived pleasure then it would be equally or potentially more pleaureable to eat vegatbles than candy.
    – Chad
    Jul 21, 2011 at 16:49

Forgetting the particular example, but just dealing with pain/pleasure, determining the internal state of another being that is incommunicative is difficult. But you can at a simple first pass use other data than self-reporting, say, crying or wasting away (which I presume that you see in yourself as markers of pain/pleasure).

How do we even know that other people have thoughts and feelings? Skeptically of course we don't -know-, but we see in ourselves that we have say a pain and we react a certain way (crying out or wanting to or the memory of such when younger) and we guess (usually successfully) that if we see that in others then they must also be feeling that way, and also the converse, if we don't see crying then we expect that they are not in pain.

Of course, from experience we have all found (I surmise from seeing others) that life is not so simple: that the converse of material implication (the converse of 'P implies Q' is 'Q implies P') does not match the truth of the original, that pain and pleasure is not black and white, that people hide their feelings, that our senses are not always so accurate, that our judgements can be clouded by so many things, etc, etc, etc.

So we can look at a baby eating and probably infer that if they're feeding, what ever it is they're eating is less repulsive than the limit needed to stop them. It could be suffering at the taste, but not enough to want to suffer at the lack of food.

Judging inner states of animals is so much harder because we can't so easily recognize similarities between ourselves and them. For all we know, dogs may totally resent our lording our authority over them, and cats really really love us but just don't know how to show it.

Back to philosophy, you can't know for sure, but you can learn what's an accurate measure of inner state by experience with yourself and your inner feelings and with babies' external appearance, but of course there's room for mistakes. Frankly, I think babies are easy; they look happy when they're feeding. It's adults who are so complex and act the opposite of what they think (for so many possible reasons).

  • +1 for this great analysis @Mitch. What I understood is that you mentioned indirect state recognition of another being. But, what about a robot which cries, or wastes away based on its program? I mean, indirect state recognition is not 100% accurate, or deterministic. It's just a guess. But a good guess. Jul 22, 2011 at 6:24

our first three years of childhood are so daunting and difficult

If that was the case, then another species would have come up, whose babies would not perceive the world as a daunting place, would pile up positive upon positive experience, as a consequence would grow up with much better "software" in their heads (self-confidence, etc.), and would have eliminated us long ago.

  • Are you referring here to evolution? Jul 21, 2011 at 5:48
  • Yes, I was thinking from an evolutionary perspective. Jul 21, 2011 at 14:28
  • unless that self doubt actually serves a purpose. Like to make us more cautious and less willing to take risks that end our lives before we can procreate.
    – Chad
    Jul 22, 2011 at 16:08

The brain develops in a fairly understood manner. At an early age children begin to reason that if they do not see it, then it does not exist. By 7 they can begin understand the concepts that object can be hidden behind each other, and by 10 should understand that the world outside of what they see and hear still goes on. But until their mind is able to comprehend that, they simply are not able to understand.

I am sure that there is research into when a childs brain develops to understand the inputs of their taste buds. I would guess it is around 6 months as that is when I have observed babies begin to make faces at certian foods. But untl their brain can process the input from their taste buds, they are not going to get pleasure or pain from the taste of the milk.

And Freud did not understand the actual physiological part of the development of the brain. While he had many contributions to psychology, today he would be considered worse than a quack. Today we have a much better understanding of the development of the human brain. And our memory creation at an early age is not suppressed, its just that what is memorable to a 1 or 2 year old is pretty mundane in just a few years. But young children (~6months+) do recognize people they come in contact with regularly. This shows some memory retention already.


In practice, we can be reasonably sure from our understanding of evolutionary psychology and our observations of infant behavior that even newborn infants will react to seriously unpleasant stimuli. But even if they couldn't, in principle you could get an fMRI of their brain to determine whether they truly liked something or not, as different areas of the brain light up when we experience discomfort (bad taste) and pleasure (tasty ice cream!).

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    Right. This is basically what (to my mind) makes this not a philosophy as question as posed.
    – Joseph Weissman
    Jul 23, 2011 at 12:52

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