Development of (Infant) Consciousness

I recently came across this poster by Douglas Newman, regarding the development of consciousness in human infants, present in the 10th annual meeting of Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness. This paper outlined a 4 stage developmental model (though the accompanying website mentions a five stage model) and I will take some liberties and present the model somewhat in my five stage framework.

Douglas believes that self-touch is the basis for self-model, which is the basis for self-referential thinking, which is the basis for consciousness. The four stage he has has outlined in his poster are:

Stage 1: Use of touch to distinguish ‘self ‘ from ‘other’
Even before birth babies use touch to explore themselves and their environment. The double sensory input provided by self-touch enables them to distinguish themselves from their environment. Kinaesthetic information also enables them to distinguish between active touch sensations produced by their own movements and passive touch sensations not coupled with movements. As consciousness is not necessary for this process it is assumed to be pre-conscious.

Stage 2: 1-4 months: Constructing the physical self-model
Piaget (1952) observed what he called primary circular reactions: repeated actions involving self-touch that begin at about one-month. The author’s observations (reported in Page 4a of the web site) suggest that this behaviour is better described as a systematic exploration by a baby of his own body. The self-referential structure of the primary circular reactions has the form:
If I carry out action B then outcome C will be produced.
Repetitions and slight modifications of self-touching support the development of manipulative skills and the construction of a model of the self as a physical object

Stage 3: 4 months onwards Piaget’s secondary circular reactions mark the onset of dynamic and systematic interactions with the environment.
Piaget (1952) observed that, from about four months old, babies perform secondary circular reactions:repeating actions that involve external objects. Young babies demonstrate this behaviour if they are given access to an appropriate mechanism. Typically, the baby is enabled make a foot movement that actuates a mobile or makes a noise. Repetitions demonstrate the ability to predict action outcomes (or rewards) in a highly structured environment. The self-referential structure of the secondary circular reactions may be expressed as:
If, in my current situation (A), I carry out action B, outcome C will be produced.
For this to be an effective procedure it is necessary that situation A be recognised, that B is part of the baby’s repertoire of possible actions and that C be regarded as a reward. The essential step forward is that external objects are now involved in the self-referential loop.

Stage 4: 6 months onwards – motivation by success
It appears that, around this age, babies become motivated by success: they seek to demonstrate, both to themselves and interested adults, their ability to produce specific effects on their physical and/or social environment. This provides them with the first indication that they have the ability to effect their physical and social environment. This stage is also significant in that it allows the outcomes of actions to be expressed as changing the initial situation (A) to a final situation (C). Simple reasoning processes (observed from about 9 months) can now develop, comparable to those used by other great apes in using tools to achieve objectives.
Conceptualising the outcomes of actions as changes in situation supports the development of chaining – linking successive actions together to produce an overall (predicted) change in the environment.
One consequence of ‘motivation by success’ is the formation of an external world model, in which situations that provide possibilities for effective action are sought. This model necessarily incorporates self-referential aspects that will eventually be eliminated in the (ideally) objective model of the world employed by adults. An important consequence ‘motivation by success’ is that babies become active explorers of their environment. This becomes very apparent when they learn to walk.

Based from the website I can add a fifth stage:

Stage 5: Development of explicit self- and world-models is based on the motivational shift described above. This, and the recognition of agency in others, leads to cultural developments, including the use of symbolic representation and language.

Now this is very much close to the common developmental sub stages identified in the sensory motor stage identified by Piaget.

  1. Reflexive Stage (0-2 months) Simple reflex activity such as grasping, sucking. Motivation is. The instinctual habit of sucking thumb, for example leads to formation of thumb-is-my-own-body/self sort of concept.
  2. Primary Circular Reactions(2-4 months) Reflexive behaviors occur in stereotyped repetition such as opening and closing fingers repetitively. The primary motivation is self-agency. the fact that one can close and open fingers at will, leads to development of concept of self-will, an important ingredient of consciousness.
  3. Secondary Circular Reactions(4-8 months) Repetition of change actions to reproduce interesting consequences such as kicking one’s feet to move a mobile suspended over the crib. Here the motivation is primarily of pleasure. One moves the mobile as it is pleasurable to watch, makes a pleasurable noise.
  4. Coordination of Secondary Reactions(8-12 months) Responses become coordinated into more complex sequences. Actions take on an “intentional” character such as the infant reaches behind a screen to obtain a hidden object. Here the grand transition that Dougals talks about takes place- motivation is now dictated by predicting the worldly outcome and archiving success in actions. The motivation is for success and predictive in nature. Chaining of world events also happens in successfully forming a world representation.
  5. Tertiary Circular Reactions(12-18 months) . Discovery of new ways to produce the same consequence or obtain the same goal such as the infant may pull a pillow toward him in an attempt to get a toy resting on it. The motivation now is novelty – finding novel ways of doing the same thing. Here situation A leads to situation C, but action taken to make the transition may be B or D or E.

The time frames above are tentative and I believe one can observe tertiary reactions in children below 9 months of age. The cognitive revolution that Tomasello et al mention, at 9 months of age, when a children starts recognizing other people as intentional agents , leads to a phenomenal change in consciousness also. But that would be going to the sixth stage of my 8 stage developmental framework, probably taking us to pre-operational period. It definitely would mark a major transition.

I find the above theory of infant consciousness development tenable and compatible with my won framework. Would love to hear conflicting theories, frameworks.

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2 thoughts on “Development of (Infant) Consciousness

  1. XaoS

    Thanks for the informative analysis on the infant consciousness development. Im just curious to know how the system in the infant would behave in case of the absence of the trainer. Most of its actions are learned from the trainer(parent) and through the action of mirror neurons the kid learns to do complicated actions. What level of information related to consciousness would be coded in the genes? Probably some of the steps we observe as the development of consciousness might be uncovering of the already developed mechanism, an adaptability technique?

  2. Sandy G

    Hi Xaos,

    You bring up some interesting questions. With lack of scaffolding, the development of infant consciousness may not be affected to a great extent, because the stages I have outlined mostly have to do with child experimenting with other objects/ his own body/ mind. The recognition of agency in others and the cultural revolution mentioned by Tomsello would of course be affected, but that would be a different level of consciousness that would be affected. Probably if no human caregivers are present during critical periods of development, the child may end up Autistic – unable to relate to others and having a narrow consciousness in the sense that not considering too much Agency in self too.

    Regarding the role of nurture vis-a-vis nature, development is the unfolding of Nature in a proper environment. So definetly, the consciousness is already coded in the genes, it just unfolds under the right circumstances. Consciousness has evolved and whta we observe as developmental unfolding is definitely due to the adaptability of various stages of consciousness.

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