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Self others image1.jpg
1: Primary intersubjectivity
0 months +
2: The self as participant:
9 months +
3:The self as value:
2 years +

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4: Moral self-awareness and theory of mind: 3 years +
5: Theatre of mind:
8 years +
6: Collectivized identities:
11 years +


Brains evolved because behavioural adaptation is a lot faster than genetic adaptation. When an animal evades a predator its behaviour is gene-dependent but not exclusively gene-determined – it is also determined by innate and acquired capacities, including learned behaviour, knowledge of the environment, and the perception of threat. The more sophisticated the brain, the greater the potential to transcend the so-called “tyranny of selfish genes”. The picture, top left, comes from a sequence showing a baby girl only 30 minutes old actively copying the facial expressions of an adult (Trevarthen & Reddy, 2007), which implicates active intermodal mapping (Meltzoff & Brooks, 2007) and supports the theory of innate intersubjectivity (Trevarthen, 1974, 1979). “Intersubjectivity” means self/other-consciousness and the sharing of experience. It is possible to discern up to six “phases” in the development of intersubjectivity during human childhood, though some are less clearly demarcated than others. We humans live in a non-selfish world of shared experience, and each stage of our development takes us a step further removed from “selfish gene” determinism. The various theories which have been proposed to explain human self-consciousness will be reviewed below after outlining the developmental phases:

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1. Primary intersubjectivity

Primary intersubjectivity is a world of shared experience which does not refer to anything outside itself (Trevarthen, 1979). For example, contingent mirror play (in which mothers and babies playfully copy each other’s vocalizations and gestures) is not “about” anything other than mother and baby learning to know and trust each other, and the baby’s first lessons in the agency of self and other. Primary intersubjectivity begins before birth as soon as the baby is able to learn to distinguish the voices of its mother and family members, and involves shared experience at the level of emotions, feelings, and relationships – negotiated through implicit displays such as facial expression, body language, “motherese” proto-conversations, song, dance, and musical games [ see the table of social displays. ] This implicit level of self/other-awareness is evidenced from birth by active intermodal mapping, and insight into others’ feelings by clowning, teasing, tricks, and “jokes” which are apparent from the sixth month (Dunn, 1991; Trevarthen, 1995).

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2. Secondary intersubjectivity: The self as participant

The transition to secondary intersubjectivity is quite sharply punctuated at around 9 months when interactions extend to comment on or refer to objects of shared attention outside the social relationship itself (Trevarthen & Hubley, 1978). The primary world of shared experience expands to include a shared experience of the world. The “child as participant” strives to understand the world “in active negotiation of creative imaginings that are valued for their human-made unreality” (Trevarthen, 1995). The baby “starts to notice trappings of culture, like clothes, books, toys, ways of posing and gesturing, and to use them for showing off the knowledge gained” (ibid). This expanding interest and insight into self, others, and the world seems to pave the way for the emergence of mimetic gesture-calls, projective pretend play, and the first words around the age of 12 months [ see table of social displays ].

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3. The “terrible twos”: The self as value

A second distinctive watershed, around 24 months, is well known in folk psychology as the beginning of the “terrible twos”. Normal children learn to recognise themselves in mirrors around the age of 18 months and begin to use the pronouns “me” and “,mine” by 20 months. This new “me”, conceived in value terms rather than just bodily terms, introduces the battle of wills familiar to parents, and the rebellious idea “me does not want to do what you wants me to do” (Lewis, 1994). Until that age toddlers are relatively passive, allowing parents to wash or dress them as they wish; but now there is a newly discovered autonomy, asserted by resistance. The “verbal explosion” and the onset of role-play roughly coincide with this new sense of self-value [see “introjective play”: table of social displays].

It would seem that we must first assert our distinctiveness from others before we can truly identify with them, and experience their pleasure and pain as our own. Although younger children are visibly distressed by pain in others, it is only at 18 months that they begin to offer comfort, however ineptly. Not until 24 months can they do so with insightful empathy, and soon afterwards, begin to show self-conscious embarrassment or coyness at another’s look (Mitchell, 1994).

There can be no doubt that self-esteem and self-worth are powerful incentives for normal human beings, capable of over-riding selfish gene motivations such as sex and survival. Olympic javelin throwers do not commonly use their skill and prowess to hunt meat and feed their close kin. Rather, they seek biologically useless rewards such as gold medals and other forms of cultural wealth, which are public affirmations of self- or group-value. Apes, who are much less preoccupied with self- worth than we are, have to be rewarded with real things such as bananas. But to us humans Brownie points, Olympic gold medals, and PhD diplomas may be worth more than whole shiploads of bananas.

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4a. Moral self-awareness

Our sense of social value leads to more complex moral emotions such as fairness, compassion, and justice – and also their more negative counterparts: pride, contempt, and revenge. These first appear following the internalization of social norms around the age of 3 years. This is the age of self-evaluative behaviour, self-adornment, and authoritarian morality (Parker, Mitchell & Boccia, 1994a), accompanied by notions of responsibility and blame (Dunn, 1991).

It seems unlikely that human culture – based on rules of morality, kinship, marriage, and economic exchange – could have emerged without such moral emotions, and they may be regarded as part of our biological heritage. Sexual modesty, however, is one moral emotion that can only be of cultural origin. The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins (1960) pointed out that human culture turns a primordial biological order on its head – because in apes, sex controls society, but in humans, society controls sex. He inferred that human culture must have had a revolutionary ‘big bang’ origin [ see Human Culture ].

The picture (above left) shows a man watching a strip show. Such erotic displays might be taken to be sexually licentious, but they are quite the reverse. Men may watch a naked woman pantomiming sexual intercourse with an invisible partner, and make no attempt to compete for the exclusive privilege of inseminating her. Feminists may think of the woman as a victim of male exploitation, but the men are also being exploited – paying a lot of money to be sexually frustrated. What is most biologically surprising is that the men accept this suppression of their “natural” inclinations without overt protest. This is the ultimate demonstration of the power of cultural control.

Some kind of sexual modesty is universal in human societies. Genitals are normally concealed – or perhaps accentuated by codpieces or penile sheaths – and public nudity only permitted in ritual or theatrical circumstances. Pantomime sex is a widespread feature of sacred rituals as well as strip shows, and ritual abstinence from marital sex is universal (Knight, 1991). Even in sexual Tantrism, intercourse is only permitted between a man and someone else’s wife (they are not supposed to “possess” each other), and the man is not supposed to ejaculate (Turner, 1982).

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4b. Theory of mind

“Theory of mind” or “ToM” is shorthand for the ability to interpret other people’s behaviour – and your own behaviour – in terms of epistemic mental states (i.e. states such as knowing, thinking, believing, pretending, and imagining). ToM is also called mentalizing or mindreading, and we do it without conscious effort – we simply perceive behaviour in terms of thoughts, expectations, beliefs, and intentions. The “litmus test” for ToM is the “Sally and Anne” task which tests a child’s ability to understand false beliefs. In one such test, the child watches Anne – played by a doll – as she puts her chocolate into a cupboard. Then Anne goes for a walk, and in her absence, Sally enters and moves the chocolate to a second cupboard. Later, Anne returns and decides she wants some chocolate. The child is asked “Which cupboard will Anne look in to find her chocolate?” A child without ToM will answer “The second cupboard,” Such a child has no concept of beliefs which may differ from reality. Although such tests suggest that ToM is usually well established by the age of four, Judy Dunn (1991) has shown that children “in the wild” – when playing with their mothers, siblings, or intimate peers – demonstrate much greater social insight than they do under laboratory conditions. ToM may be effectively present well before the age of four. This is the earliest age at which hypnosis becomes possible – “epistemic self-awareness” seems to be necessary for “epistemic rapport” (hypnotic suggestibility).

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5. Theatre of mind

Perhaps the most impressive achievement of the human mind is its ability to run social scenarios in imagination with a cast of actors – toy people – who behave as though they have minds, beliefs, desires, knowledge, and intentions of their own. This is particularly noticeable in dreams where other agents in the dream do things which cannot be predicted by the dreamer. These toy people – and the author of our dreams – implicate two or more dissociated minds coexisting in a single “individual”. I t is difficult to say when during childhood this “theatre of mind” first appears, but dissociated minds seem unlikely before the emergence of hypnotic or dissociative ability around the age of four years.

Between 5 and 8 years children expect to be embarrassed only when ridiculed (Mitchell, 1994). Consensual morality develops between the ages of 6 and 11 years (Parker, Mitchell & Boccia, 1994a) alongside a growing interest in games with rules (Parker & Milbraith, 1994) – children are becoming increasingly adapted to living in a consensual and conventional social world. Hypnotic ability peaks between the ages of 8 and 12 years (Olness & Gardner, 1988) and gradually declines thereafter – presumably as the imaginative abilities of childhood succumb to the demands of maintaining economico-moral personae. Around this age role-play can achieve hallucinatory force and lonely children may create imaginary companions (dissociated autonomous personae) – a common precursor to “multiple personality” or dissociative identity disorder (Bliss, 1986). Presumably theatre of mind is well established by this age if not earlier.

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6. Economico-moral personae and collectivized identities

Social self-consciousness increases towards puberty. The brain is now of fully adult size and, through the “adolescent growth spurt”, the body too will reach adult size some years later. Between 11 and 13 years children begin to experience true “stage fright”, being embarrassed by the thought of any audience and the mere risk of ridicule or contempt (Mitchell, 1994). This is also the age of idealism and principled morality (Parker, Mitchell & Boccia, 1994a). By the time we reach adolescence we have role-played enough to begin to take on the mandatory roles of enculturated society, and the more or less dissociated economico-moral personae required by the multiple transactions of everyday life.

All human cultures are characterized by formal systems of “exploded” kinship (clan, nation, ethnicity, religious affiliation, etc.) and out-group reciprocity (gift exchange, trade, marriage, sporting contests, etc.). These are the bases of large-scale cooperation and generalized altruism in modern humans. But when collectivized identities are linked through patriotism to armoured nation states and other large-scale groupings, they are also the bases of generalized revenge, dehumanization of “other” groups, ethnic cleansing, military rape camps, warfare, torture, and terrorism.



Suggested reading on self/other consciousness

Baron-Cohen, S. (1995) Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind (Cambridge MA: MIT Press)

Frye, D. & Moore, C., eds. (1991) Children's Theories of Mind: Mental States and Social Understanding (London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates) pp. 97-114

Parker, S.T., Mitchell, R.W., Boccia, M.L. eds (1994b) Self-awareness in Animals and Humans (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Trevarthen, C. (1995) ‘The child's need to learn a culture’ Children & Society; 9 (1):

Whitehead, C. (2001), ‘Social mirrors and shared experiential worlds’ Journal of Consciousness Studies; 8 (4): 3-36. Download PDF_TOP

Whitehead, C. (2004) ‘The social brain and the origins of human self-consciousness’: invited talk given to the Radical Anthropology Group, University of East London, 23 November.
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Copyright © 2005 Charles Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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