Self / Other - Consciousness/Section2

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A fully satisfactory theory of self- and other-awareness in humans ought to at least address the developmental changes noted above. However, most of the theories reviewed below focus mainly on theory of mind or “ToM”. The ToM concept originated in primatology with a landmark paper “Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind?” (Premack & Woodruff, 1978). It is now generally agreed that monkeys lack ToM whereas the mindreading abilities of apes are more controversial: chimpanzees do appear to have some mentalizing ability though not so highly developed as in humans. It has been postulated that the core deficit in autism is impaired ToM ability (Happé & Frith, 1996), and this may explain the high level of interest in mindreading. Autistic children, however, also have other deficits including pretend play (at 12 months) and the “self as value” (at 2 years), which generally precede the emergence of ToM (at 3-4 years). Some authors also define ToM more broadly to include desires as well as beliefs, so conflating ToM with primary intersubjectivity.

The metarepresentation model of pretend play

There are many reasons for linking pretend play to theory of mind ability. Children with deficient pretend play at 18 months are likely to have deficient theory of mind at 4 years, and so would be diagnosed as autistic (Baron-Cohen et al., 1996). Several studies have shown strong correlations between pretend play and ToM (e.g. Astington & Jenkins, 1995; Lalonde & Chandler, 1995; Youngblade & Dunn, 1995; Hughes & Dunn, 1997; Taylor & Carlson, 1997; Dunn & Cutting, 1999). Pretend play by definition involves mentally representing something as different from reality. Similarly, holding a false belief involves a mental representation that differs from reality (Leslie, 1988). This has led some authors to suggest that very young children exhibit precocious ToM abilities when they engage in pretend play and recognize when others are pretending.

According to the metarepresentation model, children consciously understand pretend play as a representational mental activity: that is, in pretend play they are mentally representing a mental representation (hence the term “metarepresentation”). Subsequently they learn to use this insight to understand mental representations more generally, so acquiring ToM (Aronson & Golomb, 1999; Flavell, 1988; Forguson & Gopnik, 1988; Hickling, Wellman, & Gottfried, 1997; Moses & Chandler, 1992; Taylor & Carlson, 1997).

However, research by Angeline Lillard (2001) seems to have effectively invalidated the central assumption of this model: young children appear to understand pretend play as involving action – “acting as if” – rather than a mental state. For example, if Moe is hopping like a rabbit – even when expressly told that Moe has never seen a rabbit, does not know that rabbits hop, or is hopping because the pavement is hot – the majority of 4 year olds still say that Moe is pretending to be a rabbit. The same children successfully solve false belief tasks. The surprising implication seems to be that in pretence, children show a retarded rather than precocious understanding of mental states.


Modularity theories and evolutionary psychology

Modularity theories attribute the development of self- and social-awareness to cognitive architecture. One or more “domain specific modules” (i.e. “black boxes” in the brain, each of which processes its own specialised kind of data) automatically infer mental states from behaviour (Fodor, 1983; Baron-Cohen, 1995; Scholl & Leslie, 1999; Leslie, 2000). In Leslie’s scheme, ToBy (Theory of Body mechanism) matures around 6 months of age enabling children to understand the mechanical attributes of objects. This is followed at 9 months by ToMM1 (Theory of Mind Module 1), which infers goals from behaviour. ToMM2 develops around 18 months and infers specific mental attitudes such as pretending and believing (Leslie, 1994b). Finally, at the age of 4 years, a “selection processor” matures which allows appropriate selection of the content of beliefs (Leslie & Thaiss, 1992).

Leslie believes that pretend play begins at 18 months and this is taken as evidence that ToMM2 is online. An important function of ToMM2, essential for pretend play, is decoupling – the temporary separation of representations from their usual referents. So, for example, if a child is pretending that stones are sweets, it is a survival imperative that she should not swallow the stones thinking they are sweets. The two representations – of the stones as stones and of the stones as sweets – must be decoupled from each other. This conceptual move is also essential for understanding beliefs that differ from one’s own.

Baron-Cohen’s (1995) scheme, partially derived from Leslie’s, assumes at least four domain specific modules as the minimum requirement for ToM. The first two – assumed to be part of the child’s “innate evolutionary endowment” – are ID (Intentionality Detector) and EDD (Eye Direction Detector). These automatically generate “dyadic representations” such as <the mouse wants → the cheese> and <mummy sees → the bus>. Around the age of 9 months SAM (Shared-Attention Mechanism) comes online and constructs triadic representations from dyadic ones, such as <Mummy sees → (I see → the bus)>. Finally, ToMM (Theory of Mind Mechanism) comes on board, using dyadic and triadic representations from ID, EDD, and SAM as “input” from which it infers epistemic mental states in self and others (i.e. states such as knowing, believing, guessing, pretending, etc.).

Modularity theorists are unashamedly influenced by computer technology and the problems addressed by machine intelligence research. They tend to treat children as stand-alone information processors (Lillard, 2001), and take little account of the child as proactive explorer and experimenter in playful exchanges with family and friends. Their input → processing → output model of cognition overlooks the circular relationship between behaviour and cognition. During evolution, natural selection acts on behaviour, not brains, and in animals with brains behavioural change is the first line of adaptation to environmental change. Genetic adaptation to the new behaviour can only follow. A population of animals would, for example, have to start eating meat before they could evolve carnivore teeth. Likewise during child development new behaviour generally precedes new cognitive skills – for example, a child may learn to count on her fingers before being able to do this in her head.

There is a conceptual alliance between modularity theorists and evolutionary psychologists. Both reason as though genetic mutation is the primary source of change. Evolution creates the black boxes in the brain, and development occurs because this is pre-programmed by the black boxes. Brains learn, however, by creating models of the world and using prediction errors to correct the models (Frith, 2007). Modularity theories do not explain why all the modules are not fully operational at birth. They overlook the reason why development occurs – because all the skills and knowledge that a child will need to live in an adult social world cannot be pre-programmed in the brain. Society is the non-genetic heritage of the child.


Simulation theory

Paul Harris’s (1991) simulation theory assumes that we are first of all self-aware, and infer that others are also self-aware by “mentally simulating” their behaviour. This is another theory linking pretend play to theory of mind – we gain insight into other people’s minds by pretending to be them, using mental role-play to “put ourselves in others’ shoes”. There is little doubt that older children and adults can mentally simulate others. A Method actor, for example, must mentally simulate the feelings, emotions, and intentions of the character she portrays. But can we invoke this ability, which would seem to depend on ToM, to explain the origins of ToM? There is even an implication that theatre of mind is a necessary precursor for ToM, which seems implausible. Baron-Cohen defines ToM as “the capacity to attribute mental states to oneself and to others and to interpret behaviour in terms of mental states” (1995: 55; italics added). If this is correct, then self-awareness can neither precede other-awareness nor be invoked to explain it. Experimental evidence seems to support Baron-Cohen’s view rather than Harris’s [ see theory theory ].


Mirror neurones

The discovery of mirror neurones by Giacomo Rizzolatti and colleages at Parma University has been taken by some as evidence in support of simulation theory, though mirror neurones are equally compatible with theory theory, social mirror theory, and the theory of innate intersubjectivity. Indeed the existence of neural systems with mirror properties might have been predicted from all these theories.

Mirror neurones were first discovered in macaques (di Pellegrino et al., 1992; Rizzolatti et al., 1996). Their peculiarity is that they fire when the monkey performs an action – such as reaching for a peanut to eat it – and also when the monkey sees another individual (monkey or human) perform the same action with the same intention. There have since been many neuroimaging studies of hand action, object manipulation, and tool use , which implicate a similar “mirror system” in humans (Decety & Grèzes, 1999; Rizzolatti & Craighero, 2004; Buccino et al., 2001). This research suggests that we understand the actions and intentions of others by neurophysiological simulation. Further research has shown that not only instrumental actions – such as reaching for a peanut – but also emotions and sensations such as disgust and pain affect common “mirror” regions of the brain whether experienced at first hand or witnessed in others (Rizzolatti et al., 2006). The expression “I feel your pain” may be more literally true than we commonly suppose.

These discoveries led to much speculation about the possible role of mirror neurones in the development of human sociality (Knoblich & Sebanz, 2006), including theory of mind (Gallese & Goldman, 1998; Fogassi & Luppino, 2005) and language (Rizzolatti & Arbib, 1998). However, mirror networks – common to monkeys as well as humans – cannot be sufficient to explain uniquely human abilities. As Calvo-Merino et al. (2005) note, we humans, in contrast to monkeys, have many forms of shared behaviour which are far more sophisticated than grasping and manipulating objects, or even the use of specialized tools. They cite dance as an example, to which one could add many others such as mime, representational art, pretend play, and so on [ see table of social displays ].


The twin-earth model

After presenting evidence against the metarepresentation model and pointing out some shortcomings of modularity and simulation theories, Angeline Lillard (2001) proposed her “Twin Earth” model, which combines Leslie’s decoupling idea with mental simulation to provide “a more contextualized developmental account of the relation between theory of mind and pretend play”.

The “TwinEarth” idea is borrowed from philosophy where it is used in thought experiments. Twin Earth is basically an imagined world which is exactly like the real world except for a few parameters which the philosopher wishes to investigate. Lillard suggests that the decoupled world of pretend play functions in a similar way to a Twin Earth thought experiment, and so supports superior reasoning in children. An important feature of this theory is that children acquire ToM through social learning and experiment.

Pretend play, in Lillard’s model, is triggered by two factors: imitating the pretend actions of parents and older siblings, and a “symbolic function” which is the black-box element of this theory. Children learn to understand pretence in others by reading intentions (revealed, for example, by the “silly” facial expression), by joint attention (compare Baron Cohen’s “Shared-Attention Mechanism”: 1995), and by social referencing (assessing ambiguous situations by checking the attitude of a more experienced person – e.g. if an adult seems afraid, the child will retreat from the apparent danger).

ToM also develops as a result of two main factors – attending to social signals, and the decoupled world of Twin Earth pretence. The child’s own pretend play eventually extends to include role-play, which further contributes to the elaboration of mental insight. It is only after the child has acquired ToM that further relevant experience leads to the realization that pretence involves mental action – entirely the reverse of the sequence assumed by the metarepresentation model. Other theorists might object to Lillard’s “symbolic function” module as a means of kick-starting pretend play. Social mirror theory, for example, would suggest that pretend play is the origin of symbolic abilities rather than the other way round, and would emphasize earlier forms of social display such as contingent mirror play and “song and dance” behaviour. The theory of innate intersubjectivity would similarly emphasize earlier forms of shared behaviour including “proto-conversation” and musical exchanges which lay the foundation for mimetic communication, pretend play, and “symbolic” abilities.


Theory theory

Allison Gopnik and Andrew Meltzoff’s (1994) “theory theory” holds that children must develop a concept or “theory” of mental states in order to acquire ToM. This concept is inferred from “all the available evidence” – that is, from their own and others’ collective behaviour – and specifically depends on mimicry. The acquisition of a mental-states concept confers reflective insight into one’s own mind and the ability to read other minds at the same time. Gopnik and Meltzoff claim to have demonstrated this – so apparently disproving simulation theory – by innovative variants of “Sally and Anne” tasks. For example, in one typical task, a child is shown an M&M box (or Smarties in the UK), and asked what she thinks is in the box. The child replies “M&Ms”. Then the box is opened to reveal that it is filled with pencils. In the standard false belief task, the box would then be closed, and Sally – played by a doll – would enter. The child is then asked “What does Sally think is in the box?” A child without ToM will reply “Pencils”. Such a child has no concept of mental states as something that can be different from reality (i.e. false beliefs). In their version of this task, Sally was dispensed with. Instead, the child was simply asked “Why did you just now tell me that the box contained M&Ms?” They found that a child without ToM would deny having ever said such a thing. Apparently, such children have no reflective awareness of their own (very recent) false beliefs.

The central emphasis on mimicry in theory theory, however, would seem to make active intermodal mapping and mirror neurones sufficient to account for the unique complexities of human self- and other-awareness. Humans have many more forms of shared behaviour than simple mimicry [see social mirror theory, theory of innate intersubjectivity, and table of social displays].


Active intermodal mapping

The central emphasis on mimicry in theory theory, reflects Meltzoff’s earlier research in newborn babies. In 1977, together with M. Keith Moore he published the ground-breaking paper "Imitation of facial and manual gestures by human neonates". These researchers showed that infants between 12 and 21 days of age can mimic the facial expressions and gestures of adults. It has since been shown that such imitative behaviour begins within hours or minutes after birth (Meltzoff, 1990a, 1990b; Meltzoff & Moore, 1983, 1995; Trevarthen & Reddy, 2007). The 1977 paper revolutionized our understanding of child development, because mimicry had been considered impossible at such an early age. Jean Piaget (1962), for example, believed that spontaneous facial imitation began around the age of 12 months.

This early mimicry could not be explained in terms of conditioning or innate releasing mechanisms, and implied that babies must be able to match what they can see but not feel (the other person’s face) with what they can feel but not see (their own face). This is known as active intermodal mapping (AIM) or visuokinaesthetic matching (VKM). The discovery of mirror neurones confirmed the neurological basis of AIM/VKM.


The “like me” hypothesis

Andrew Meltzoff’s research on early imitation and other studies led him to propose the "like me" hypothesis of infant development (2007a, b). This involves three steps. First, there is an intrinsic connection in the infant mind between observed acts and similar executed acts (i.e. active intermodal mapping). Secondly, infants experience a regular association between their own acts and their own underlying mental states. Third, infants project their own internal experiences onto others performing similar acts. As a result, infants begin to acquire an understanding of other minds and their mental states. At first sight this looks like a reversion from theory theory, (infants become self-aware and other-aware at the same time) to something more in line with simulation theory (infants are first of all self-aware and then infer from their own experience that others are aware – steps 2 and 3 above). In presenting his ideas Meltzoff cites social mirror theory as proposed by Baldwin (1906) and Mead (1934) – both of whom believed that self- and other-awareness emerge simultaneously.

However, the “like me” hypothesis is grounded in research. Of particular relevance is the onset of secondary intersubjectivity and “shared attention monitoring” [ see modularity theories ]. Brooks and Meltzoff (2002) used the Gaze Following: Eyes Open/Closed test to assess 12, 14, and 18-month-old infants. They found that infants turned to follow the gaze of an adult when the adult’s eyes were open, and did so significantly more often than they followed a mere head turn in adults whose eyes were shut. This showed that infants were responding to eye direction rather than head turning. A later study showed that gaze-following began at the age of ten months (Brooks & Meltzoff, 2005). The distinction between the eyes-open and eyes-closed conditions was also apparent at this age. However, this did not extend to the contrast between eyes-open and eyes blindfolded. Children did not seem to appreciate that a blindfold blocks vision, as surely as closed eyelids, until they were 14 months old.

The authors surmised that a possible reason for this failure of younger children to appreciate the effects of a blindfold might be based on their own experience. Children from birth have first-hand experience of the effects of closing their own eyes, but not the effects of being blindfolded. A further study was designed to test this in 12-month-old children (Meltzoff & Brooks, 2004). One group was given no prior experience, a second group was given experience of being blindfolded, and a third group was given experience with a black cloth identical to the blindfold but with a “peeking window” cut out of the middle. The results showed that the children with first-hand experience of being blindfolded could now appreciate the difference between an eyes-open gaze and a blindfolded head turn in others. The other two groups still mistakenly followed the “gaze” of a blindfolded adult. Meltzoff and Brooks (2007) comment: “This is the first study showing that infants use first-person experience about a mental state such as ‘seeing’ to grasp the experience of others.”

So which research are we to believe? The “Sally and Anne” tasks described by Gopnik and Meltzoff (1994) suggest that children acquire insight into their own false beliefs and into the false beliefs of others at the same time. The blindfold experiment, on the other hand, suggests that first-hand experience precedes insight into the experience of others. This apparent contradiction may be explained by the difference between implicit experience (i.e. awareness per se) and explicit awareness of being aware (i.e. reflective consciousness). Clearly, we could not become aware of being aware unless we were aware in the first place. The blindfold experiment reveals the importance of implicit awareness in intersubjectivity, whereas false belief tasks test for reflective insight.

There is now evidence that very young children (13-15 months) have implicit ToM in the sense that they are surprised if an actor looks at where an object really is rather than where the actor believes it to be (Onishi & Baillargeon, 2005; Onishi, Baillargeon & Leslie, 2007; Surian, Caldi & Sperber, 2007). Children passing classic ToM tests at 4 years have explicit ToM in the sense that they can tell you why the actor looks in the wrong place.

If the brain can model other minds even in the absence of reflective consciousness, what has really changed by the age of four? Theory theory, assumes a “mental states concept”. Leslie proposed a “selection processor” [ see modularity theories ]. A speculative alternative could be dissociative ability, since hypnosis first becomes possible at this age [ see theory of mind ]. Dissociation may be necessary for one part of the mind to act as “mental observer”.


Social mirror theory

Social mirror theory originated in the late 19th century with the work of Wilhelm Dilthey (1883-1911), a hermeneutic anthropologist of the Heidelberg school – although it ultimately derived from the Hegelian idea that “we become conscious through acting on the world” (Hegel, 1807). Marx and Engels (1846) reinterpreted this as “we become conscious through labour”. Dilthey considered social action to be more potent than mere “action”, and suggested that we discover our own “subjective depths” through the “meaningful objectifications” of others. In contrast to Marx, Dilthey made social display – as opposed to work and the use of tools – the basis of self-consciousness and other-consciousness in humans.

Comparable ideas were developing in American social psychology. James Mark Baldwin (1894), influenced by a number of European thinkers, suggested that our perceptions of “ego” and “alter” develop in parallel through a dialectic of social interactions. Five years later, Charles Horton Cooley (1902) proposed the idea of a “looking glass self” (a self-concept based on our own interpretation of how others see us). Subsequently, George Herbert Mead (1934) pointed out the histrionic character of human social life, and theorized that reflective consciousness depends on role-play, through which we learn to imagine ourselves in the shoes of a “generalized other”, and observe our own minds from this third-person viewpoint. In common with Baldwin, he believed that self- and other-awareness develop in parallel. More recent research seems to confirm this [see theory theory, and the “like me” hypothesis].

Mead’s idea of social life as theatre was fed back into anthropology through Erving Goffman’s landmark work The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), and Dilthey’s ideas through another seminal work, From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play (Turner, 1982). Outside anthropology, however, social mirror theory has been somewhat overshadowed by theory theory, and simulation theory.

Social mirror theory holds that “mirrors in the mind depend on mirrors in society” (Whitehead, 2001). In other words, mental states must first be made public through shared behaviours – “social displays” – before we can learn to pay attention to them, and so become self-aware and other-aware. According to this theory, humans are uniquely self-conscious (and other-conscious) because of our formidable armamentarium of social displays, which range from implicit forms (such as affective gestures and vocalizations, embodied play, and “song-and-dance” display), through mimetic displays (iconic gestures, pretend play, role-play, and representational image-making), to conventionalized forms (analogical and cryptic codes, games with rules, music, ritual, theatre, the literary arts, “Art” with a capital A, and wealth displays) [ see table of social displays ].

If social mirror theory is correct, then the three modes of social display (implicit, mimetic, and conventional) would be expected to lead to three associated levels of self- and other-awareness in animals and humans, with the enculturated level – incorporating socially-prescribed personae and the capacity for abstract thought – uniquely developed in humans (cf. Mitchell, 1994). This in turn could explain the phases of increasing self/other-awareness during childhood development and the successive phases of brain expansion and structural change during human evolution. [See also social brain ].


Theory of innate intersubjectivity

Colwyn Trevarthen’s theory of innate intersubjectivity derives from pioneering research on infants which he began at the Center for Cognitive Studies, Harvard, in 1967 and 1968, and subsequently continued at Edinburgh from 1971 until the present. Three years after moving to Edinburgh, Trevarthen published his theory (1974, 1979), which claims that: a child is born with motives to find and use the motives of other persons in “conversational” negotiation of purposes, emotions, experiences and meaning. The efficiency of sympathetic engagement between persons signals the ability of each to “model” or “mirror” the motivations and purposes of companions, immediately. It requires a “virtual other” representation of the kind that Bråten (1988, 1992) has described. Infants evidently have this (Trevarthen, 1998). There were seven important steps in the development of this theory (Trevarthen, 1998): 1. First came a recognition of the “coherent intentionality and active consciousness of the infant at birth.” The co-ordinated movements and tracking abilities of newborn babies revealed that they have a “cerebral representation of a unified body-centred space/time of eye-hand-mouth behaviours.” 2. The second was the discovery that babies at birth had two distinct modes of purposeful behaviour: “doing” with objects and “communicating” with persons. Neither of these “volitional states” were “simply reflections of levels of physiological arousal, nor 'innate release mechanisms' triggered by 'sign stimuli'. Infants were sensitive to dynamic motive patterns in persons through many modalities, and aware of others' attention directed towards themselves.” 3. These two volitional states did not develop at equal rates. Further research showed that during the first six months of life “communicating with persons developed conversational proficiency or expressive reciprocity before the infants could perform effective manipulation of objects.” 4. Facial, vocal, and gestural exchanges between babies and sympathetic partners were found to have conversation-like structure, with emotional expression, turn-taking, and subtle timing. At 2 to 3 months these “proto-conversations” (Bateson,1979, p. 65) had rudiments of speech and sign gestures and were seen to be preparatory for linguistic communication.

During the second six months of life, the two modes of purposeful behaviour – “doing” with objects and “communicating” with persons – were shown to “undergo systematic age-related integrations leading to joint interest in purposes toward objects and events in the shared environment.” This occurs at a critical watershed around 9 months, marking the onset of secondary intersubjectivity. Whereas primary intersubjectivity is characterized by “person-person awareness”, secondary intersubjectivity extends to include “person-person-object awareness”. Cooperative task performance now becomes both possible and attractive for the infant.

A parallel change from dyadic to triadic interrelationships occurs in the spontaneous games infants play with familiar others. Observations around the middle of the infant's first year “indicated that the playfulness of the infant was guiding family partners into systematic rituals of body expression and vocalisation, first in 'personperson games', involving humorous joking and gentle animation of toys in 'person-person-object games' in which emotional gestures and sounds were linked with 'serious' attempts to master the objects' affordances for use... While, at this age, infants, in familiar company, show…self-other-consciousness and pride in ritualized performances, unfamiliar persons stimulate expressions of anxiety and mistrust.” Experiments were then designed to test the emotional responses of infants when normal communication was distorted or disturbed. It was found that two-month-olds became distressed if the mother spoke as to an adult and non-contingently (Tatam, 1974); assumed a blank face, or responded with inappropriate timing or manner (Murray, 1980; Murray & Trevarthen, 1985; Trevarthen, 1985). Mothers were found to be equally sensitive, at a subconscious level, to non-contingent expressions in a replayed recording of the infant’s positive intersubjective communication (Murray and Trevarthen, 1986). The conclusion was that “normal happy proto-conversational games need mutual awareness and purposeful replies, with both parties in immediate sympathetic contact” (Trevarthen, 1984). Emotions were seen to have two functions: “as regulators of motivational harmony or conflict within the intentional subject, and as expressions of human feeling that regulate contacts and relationships with others” (Trevarthen, 1984).

Several of the theories reviewed on this page assume or could accommodate the idea that intersubjectivity is innate. However, Trevarthen emphasizes the reciprocal character of infants’ interactions with others, which depend on motivation and purpose on both sides, and mutual recognition of this intentionality. He notes that in contingent mirror play (where mother and baby mimic each other’s gestures and vocalisations) it is typical for the mother to imitate more than the infant. Further, babies will attempt to “invite” or “provoke” such bouts of imitation with adults, so taking the initiative (Nagy & Molnar, 1994). He suggests that the process of matching in “magnetic” imitation by neonates: does not necessarily depend on body sensations caused by movement of the limbs or face, or comparison of seen and felt movements, but some kind of adjustment of the “image” of a movement to be made to that of a movement seen must be taking place in the brain. In order to imitate, the infant must have a cerebral representation of persons (Trevarthen, 1979, p. 331).

In other words, mirror neurones, and active intermodal mapping cannot sufficiently explain human intersubjectivity. What is needed in addition is a cerebral representation of the infant’s own body (step 1 above) and of a “virtual other”. This is the central unique feature of Trevarthen’s theory, and he refers to these self-other images as “motor representations” – that is, they are dynamic representations centred on movement, behaviour, and social interaction. Other important components of Trevarthen’s view – though not exclusive to it – are the proto-conversational and proto-narrative structure of preverbal exchanges, the timing and rhythmicity that this requires, the musicality and rhythmicity of “motherese” (the “special” way in which parents talk to babies), and the importance of musical and rhythmic games per se. Of all the theories reviewed on this page, social mirror theory and the theory of innate intersubjectivity are the only two which explicitly address the rich diversity of human displays.



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