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When do infants gain conscious awareness?

Although scientists have long known that living things act with purpose, the origins of the sense of purpose has remained a mystery. 

Fundamental questions of agency (acting with purpose) – such as where does purpose come from and how do humans make sense of their relation with the environment and realize their capacity to change things around them – have puzzled experts like Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Erwin Schrödinger, or Niels Bohr for centuries.

Infants and a sense of purpose

Now, by using an unusual and largely untapped source – human infants – a team of researchers led by the Florida Atlantic University (FAU) has shed new light into the origins of agency. 

Since goal-directed agency emerges in the first months of life, the scientists used human infants as a case study to clarify how spontaneous movement transforms into purposeful action.

The infants started the experiment as disconnected observers. Yet, when the researchers connected one of the infants’ feet to a crib-mounted baby mobile, infants soon discovered that they could make the mobile move. 

The birth of agency

In order to uncover the dynamic and coordinative features marking the “birth of agency” the experts measured infant and mobile movement in three-dimensional space by employing state-of-the-art motion capture technology. 

The analysis and dynamic modeling of these experiments suggests that agency arises from the coupled relation between the organism (infant) and the environment (mobile). 

More specifically, when an infant’s foot is connected to the mobile, each foot movement causes the mobile to move. The more the mobile moves, the more the infant is stimulated to move, producing even more mobile motion, in a feedback process from which the sense of purpose emerges.

Intentional behavior 

“Positive feedback amplifies and highlights the cause-and-effect relationship between infant and mobile motion,” said senior author Scott Kelso, an expert in Human Brain and Behavior at FAU’s Center for Complex Systems and Brain Sciences

“At some critical level of coordination, the infant recognizes its causal powers and transitions from spontaneous to intentional behavior. This aha! moment is marked by an abrupt increase in infant movement rate.”

Aliza Sloan, a postdoctoral fellow in Kelso’s lab and the study’s lead author, developed a quantitative “aha! detector” to identify sudden increases in infant movement rate related to infants’ discovery of their sense of agency. 

Sense of purpose is a dynamical system 

This method provided proof that the birth of agency could be understood as a “eureka-like,” pattern-changing phase transition within a dynamical system spanning the infant, the brain, and the environment. 

This system switches from a less correlated state to a state in which the movements of the mobile and the tethered foot are highly coordinated as the infant discovers its functional connection with the environment.

Coordination dynamics 

Although such experimental setups have been used in developmental psychology since the 1960s, studies traditionally focused only on infant activity, treating the infant and the environment as two separate entities. 

By contrast, this new study frames agency as an emergent property from the functional coupling between the organism and the environment, and describes it through the lens of Coordination Dynamics, a theory explaining how complex living beings resonate with the environment and how function and order emerge from such interactions.

Self-organizing process 

While scientists expected that infants would discover their control over the mobile through their coordinated action with the mobile, patterns of infant pausing were a striking discovery. 

Thus, the emergence of agency appears to be a punctuated self-organizing process, with meaning found both in movement and stillness.

Study’s implications

“The babies in our study have revealed something really profound: that there is action in the midst of inaction, and inaction in the midst of action. Both provide meaningful information to the infant exploring the world and its place in it,” Kelso explained. 

“The coordination dynamics of movement and stillness jointly constitute the unity of the baby’s conscious awareness – that they can make things happen in the world. Intentionally.” 

The analysis also revealed that infants navigate functional coupling with the environment in different ways. 

The scientists detected distinct clusters in the timing and degree of bursts of infant activity, suggesting that behavioral phenotypes (observable features) of agentive discovery do exist, and can be described through coordination dynamics. 

In the future, this cutting-edge method could be used for preventive care and early treatment of infants at risk.

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

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