Your Babies #022: The baby in the mirror

Maciej & Ola sent us this video of their 4 month old baby Frederick seeing himself in the mirror for the first time. He’s not entirely sure what’s going on but he likes it! At four months old Frederick is too young to start to work out that the baby in the mirror is him. But he knows there is something unusual happening here.

To me it looks like Frederick keeps waiting for the baby to interact with him and then gets surprised by the synchrony. He won’t be consciously aware that this charming stranger is literally mirroring everything he does. But he is aware it is not the normal way things are. Turn taking is built into the foundations of all human interaction. Conversations and non-verbal interaction alternate between partners. Parents start doing this with their babies from the very beginning. It’s a subtle but ubiquitous feature of the world that even a four month old might have picked up on. So an interaction like this which breaks that rule must seem strange, but nice!

Although not all babies are so quick to accept this new phenomena..

Especially, when parents or passing psychologists play tricks on them.

The Baby in the Mirror is also the title of an excellent memoir of infancy by British developmental psychologist Charles Fernyhough. As suggested by it’s US title “A Thousand Days of Wonder”, it is a reflection on the first three years of the life of his daughter Athena. Fueled by his novelist’s power of description and parent’s pride, he poetically combines his scientist’s sense of wonder with her own insatiable childish curiosity. I can highly recommend it.

A baby in the mirror - Charles Fernyhough

Here’s a short extract about babies and mirrors:

Infants are fascinated by mirrors, of course. Charles Darwin noted that his baby son Doddy, at four and a half months, would repeatedly smile at his own reflection and that of his father, appearing to take them for separate beings. […] Doddy … would have had little in the way of self to be a stranger to. He wasn’t yet aware that he had one single, indivisible presence, and so he couldn’t have been surprised to see it multiplied in this way.

Two months later, Doddy’s understanding of mirrors had taken a step forward. Facing the mirror in front of his father, he now seemed to realise that his father’s reflection was connected to the person standing behind him. When Darwin made a face in the mirror, Doddy turned to look at the man, not at his reflection. We saw Athena doing something similar at the same age. […] She understood something about the mechanics of reflection, that what you see in the mirror si not just an extension of the world but a special version of it. She was far from having a full understanding of it, but the looking-glass world was becoming real.

Knowing that she understood something about mirrors made her reaction to her own reflection that much more interesting. Here she is at the same age, being held up close to the wardrobe mirror. Her eyes are wide. She stares at her reflection and then darts a couple of glances into the corners of the mirror, as though establishing the limits of this weird version of reality. Then she reaches forward excitedly, patting at the glass with both hands. There is a gleeful shout, a smile of pleasure, but her eyes are still active, looking the reflected stranger up and down in what could almost be taken for suspicion. She stays rapt like this for quite a while. She may be noting the connection between her own actions and those she sees reflected: when I bat my hands forward like that, the baby in the mirror does it too. From the inside, from the sense that she has of her own body’s movements and position, she has information about what she is doing; and now the mirror refects the same information back at her. She can imitiate its imitations. She recognises that this specular creature has something to do with herself, and no one else. At the same time, she knows that it is not her; it exists in a different location, flat against our old walnut-wood wardrobe, and it does its corresponding at a distance.

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Your little monkeys are a bit like… little monkeys.

When I was born, I was quite furry with big sticky out ears. My mother thought I looked a bit like a monkey. She told the nurses, who told her off: “Mrs Addyman, he’s not a monkey, he’s your beautiful baby.” Which, of course, only made her say it all more.
– “Bring me my monkey!”

Now, of couse, as we have all known since Charles Darwin first pointed it out, we are monkeys. (Yes, I know that technically the great apes aren’t monkeys*. But if you tell me off about it, I’ll just say it all the more.) But, now Kristen Gillespie-Lynch and Patricia M. Greenfield, have  study published in Frontiers in Psychology, showing that all baby primates use a similiar set of gestures.

They compared video footage of a female chimpanzee, a female bonobo and a female human infant to compare different types of communicative gestures during development. For example, babies of all three species would raise their hands above their heads when they wanted to be picked up. The researchers just this is evidence for the “gestures first” theory of the evolution of language.

The study has received widespread media coverage: SlateNBCLA Times,Discovery News, and many more media outlets. Here’s an ‘explainer’ from Slate:

Of course, for all the similarities, there are plenty of differences. Firstly new born chimp and bonobo are lot more competent than new born humans. They have to be, their parents aren’t as attentive as human parents and human babies are not as developed when they arrived. Compared to other primates human babies are effectively born  a few months prematurely. Our giant heads mean that we can’t safely be born  at the same level of development as chimps, bonobos or gorillas. But once they build up a bit of manual dexterity, human babies rapidly outstrip their chimpy cousins. And once language kicks in, we’re a whole different species.

We laugh a lot more too. Both chimps and bonobos joke and play. They even laugh, after a fashion (See this video of a giggling little chimp) But, as this study points out, they are a lot less vocal than our species. Vocalization was rare for the non-human primates but very common for the baby girl in this study. Remember, that laughter is a form of communication. And it’s one that humans have a mastery from extremely early in life. Gestures are certainly an important part of our communicative skill and may well have been more important a couple of million years earlier in our pre-history. But once we started laughing we never stopped.

If you have a video of your baby laughing, please share it with us to help with our research.

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