The intersubjective mirror in infant learning

The intersubjective mirror in infant learning and evolution of speech. By Stein Bråten. (Advances in consciousness research 76.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2009. Pp. xxii, 351. ISBN 9789027252128. $149 (Hb).

Reviewed by Dennis Ryan, University Writing and Language Consultants

Recent research has led to a reassessment of human capacity beginning in infancy with ‘children’s [first] steps to speech’ (xiii). This, in turn, has spawned questions concerning the evolution of prespeech and proto-conversation. How do infants become so quickly adept at understanding speech in social contexts?  How do young children move so facilely from initial, nonverbal communication to an appreciation of narrative? How do children develop the ability to understand the minds of others? Stein Bråten entertains such questions in this book. B believes the answers to these questions are attributable to the existence of intersubjective states in young children and the recent discovery of mirror neurons that enable children to learn by imitation in face-to-face social interactions from the beginning of life.

Part 1, ‘Background for questions and findings inviting a paradigm shift’ (3–88), discusses how recent empirical infant research and the discovery of a mirror neuron system have resulted in a paradigm shift in the understanding of infant and child development. These findings have led B to formulate a complex theory of human development that views children’s private speech acts as altercentric problem-solving in the real world. He contends that this private speech is a dialogue with a virtual other that is an internalized mirror-reflection of the child’s all-encompassing sensory learning experiences with others.

Part 2, ‘On the origin of (pre)speech and efficient infant learners’ (91–162), speculates that bipedalism is crucial to the development of intersubjectivity because communication between hominid mothers and offspring first took place at a distance in face-to-face encounters. Language evolved from these first sound warnings and survival instructions. Empathy and altruism are viewed as integral to intersubjectivity. B draws parallels between his observations of chimpanzees feeding sugarcane to unrelated juveniles and consoling one another and an eleven-month old child spoon-feeding her mother and offering her juice. Imitating adult action in face-to-face encounters enabled the infant to take a virtual part in the other’s action (61). B uses the term vitality contours to describe this joint temporal sharing of emotion. This type of learning becomes a part of the infant’s procedural memory, to be recycled and re-enacted.

Part 3, ‘Intersubjective steps to speech and mind-reading in ontogeny’ (167–304), discusses the emergence and development of intersubjectivity in children. From birth, the child begins at a level of primary intersubjectivity with neonatal imitation. This develops into secondary intersubjectivity with shared attention to objects and tertiary intersubjectivity when the child engages in private speech and fantasy play. Between the ages of three to six, children begin to mirror the actions of the person they imitate in face-to-face learning situations, but children with autism cannot perform such tasks. This has been accounted for by motor-sensory impairment which leads B to conclude that children with autism do not possess functional mirror neuron systems; their mirrors have been biologically broken.

This book is theoretically and clinically relevant to the discussion of autism in children. .Overall, B’s argument is convincing and reinforces the views of Robert Trivers and Steven Pinker, who have written extensively on reciprocal altruism and language evolution.

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