Even more fundamental then language is the development of our unique human awareness and reflective thought. Believe it or not, when a young baby’s hand goes whizzing by her face, she actually has no idea that it is her own hand. A baby’s consciousness and awareness is nothing like an adult humans. They are trapped in the here and now and cannot yet even separate a perception from an action. When my daughter Whitney was hungry, she cried for food. When she was uncomfortable she let out a distress cry. Initially most emotions are “catastrophic” where the immediate environment or situation overwhelms them. So how do newborns become aware of and regulate their emotions. How do they become aware of a past, present and future with all the requisite images and symbols to represent each. How does the “me in my world” mental models develop where we form intentions, create images and scenarios in mind to act upon those intentions. By the time they are three most of these important aspects of awareness and thought are in place. How does a baby master this amazing transformation?
An important first task is perceptual categorization and awareness. When comfortable and calm babies can attend to the external world of sights, sounds and other senses. Infants not only attend to stimuli; but also learn to attend selectively to slight differences. For example, if the child hears the same tone three or four times, its power to orient the child diminishes. But change the tone just one note higher or lower and the infant becomes interested again, indicating that he has noticed the difference.
Initially babies experience a limited number of global states such as calmness, excitement, and distress. As they experience a range of sensations, they begin to develop more nuanced emotions and responses. Each sensation of sight or sound, taste or smell as registered by the baby gives rise to an affect or emotion. A blanket can be smooth and pleasant or scratchy and irritating; a loud voice can be inviting or jarring. The sensation gets coded with both its physical features and its emotional effect. Sensory impressions are increasingly tied to feelings in this “duel code”. Emotions help organize the world for the baby. Inner emotional tones are used to make sense of experience to eventually label and organize, store and retrieve emerging images and memories. Babies have a base level awareness of being alive and discriminating the effects of different sensations—called primary consciousness.
Another critical early step is translating this emotional interest in sensations to form a relationship and become engaged in the world. Babies will become progressively more interested in certain people like mom & dad. In the second quarter of life, babies begin to engage with joyful smiles and coos developing a deep sense of pleasurable intimacy. A key to deepening this intimacy is the rhythm and timing of parent and baby interactions – such as the back and forth coos and smiles exchanged in face to face play. Our babies begin to distinguish the joys and pleasures of the human world from the joys and pleasures of the inanimate world of objects, They are beginning on the long journey of recognizing patterns and organizing perceptions into meaningful categories.
A third step to broadening awareness and thought is transforming these pleasurable emotions with parent interactions into signals of communication and intentionality. Our babies begin to smile in order to get a smile back; reaches for grandpas nose to get a “honk-honk” sound. Our babies begin to engage in back and forth emotional signaling. Instead of an immediate narrow action, babies begin to transform emotions into interactive signals that express that emotion. Different physical gestures such as vocalizations and facial expressions are the means of this signaling. These interactions help an infant separate perceptions from fixed actions. Unlike most of the animal kingdom, humans can form an image, or mental representation, that is less tied to action. Once food exists as an image separated from crying that image can be used for new purposes such as signaling intent or eventually planning and problem solving.
This early awareness or consciousness leads to a more articulate self-awareness. When do babies actually come to realize that the hand moving in front of their face is theirs– that “I am me”– this ability to form an image or mental representation of themselves in their mind. Consider an infant looking into a mirror. Does the infant think, “That’s me” or “That’s a baby?” It is not until around their first birthday that they begin to know the image is themselves in the mirror. Self-awareness begins slowly with the recognition that one’s own body moves in expected ways. A child knows that kicking “my feet” can happen at times that are useful (getting a blanket off my legs). This does not mean that the infant has words or even mental images of “baby Whitney;” But this sense of agency, that effects can happen when useful, creates the ground from which self-awareness grows.
About the end of the first year babies begin to understand that the image in the mirror “belongs” to them. For example, if the child is wearing a lightweight cap to which he has habituated (no longer remembers it is there), upon seeing himself in the mirror he may reach up to touch or remove the hat. His behavior suggests that he knows the image belongs to him and not some generic baby.