Research on infants provides the first quantitative observations demonstrating the “emergence” of agency or purpose in humans.
Living organisms work with a purpose. But where does the goal come from? How do humans understand their relationship to the world and realize their ability to create change? These fundamental questions about agency—acting with a specific purpose—have puzzled some of the greatest minds in history including Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Erwin Schrödinger, and Niels Bohr.
New research from Florida Atlantic University reveals a groundbreaking insight into the origins of power using an unusual and largely untapped source: human children. Since goal-directed action emerges in the first months of human life, the FAU research team used young children as a test field to understand how automatic movement turns into purposeful action.
For the study, infants began the experiment as separate observers. However, when the researchers attached one of the infants’ feet to a mobile phone attached to the crib, the babies discovered that they could perform this moving motion. To capture this moment of perception like lightning in a bottle, researchers measured the movement of infants and walkers in 3D space using cutting-edge motion capture technology to reveal the dynamic and coordination features that characterize the “birth of agency.”
Recent results, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, providing a solution to this ancient puzzle. Analysis and dynamic modeling of experiments with infants suggest that agency emerges from the dual relationship between the organism (the child) and the environment (the mobile). But how exactly does this happen?
When an infant’s foot is attached to a mobile phone, every foot movement causes the mobile phone to move. It was thought that the more movement there was, the more the infant would be stimulated to move, resulting in more mobile movement.
“Positive feedback amplifies and highlights the cause-and-effect relationship between infant movement and ambulatory movement,” said J. A. Scott Kelso, lead author and senior research scientist at the Center for Complex Systems and Brain Sciences. Inside FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science. “At some critical level of coordination, the infant recognizes his or her causal powers and switches from automatic to intentional behavior. This aha!” moment is characterized by a sudden increase in the infant’s rate of movement.
Alisa Sloan, Ph.D., lead author and postdoctoral research scientist at the University of Florida’s Center for Complex Systems and Brain Sciences, developed the quantum “aha.” A detector to look for sudden increases in the infant’s rate of movement associated with sudden infant detection.
Sloan’s technique demonstrated that the “birth” of strength can be measured as a “eureka-like” transitional phase of pattern change within a dynamic system extending across the child, brain, and environment. The system switches from a less linked state to one in which the movements of the mobile limb and the tethered limb are highly coordinated as the infant discovers its functional association with the mobile device.
Although the basic experiment design has been used in developmental research since the late 1960s, related research has traditionally focused only on infant activity, treating the infant and environment as separate entities. In 50 years of formal experiments with children’s mobile devices, the FAU study was the first to directly measure mobile device movement and use coordination analysis to provide quantitative observations of the emergence of human agency.
The new approach used in this study conceptualizes agency as an emergent property of the functional coupling of organism and environment. The researchers delved into the interaction between child and mobile device through the eyes of coordination dynamics—Kelso and colleagues’ theory of how complex organisms (from cells to society) coordinate and how function and order emerge.
When an infant’s foot is attached to a mobile phone, every foot movement causes the mobile phone to move. Positive feedback amplifies and highlights the cause-and-effect relationship between infant movement and ambulatory movement. At some critical level of coordination, the infant recognizes his or her causal powers and switches from automatic to intentional behavior. This is aha! The moment is characterized by a sudden increase in the infant’s rate of movement. Credit: Florida Atlantic University
Although it was expected that infants would discover their control of the mobile phone through their coordinated action with the mobile phone, infants’ patterns of stopping were striking.
“Our findings show that it’s not just infants’ active movements that are important,” said Nancy Jones, Ph.D., co-author, professor in the FAU Department of Psychology and director of the FAU WAVES Laboratory.
A complete coordination analysis of the child’s movement, mobile movement, and their interaction finds that the emergence of force is a discontinuous self-organizing process, with meaning found in both movement and stillness.
“The babies in our study revealed something really profound: that there is action in the midst of inaction, and inaction in the midst of action. Both provide useful information for the infant to explore the world and his place in it,” Kelso said. “The dynamics of coordination between movement and stillness together form a unity A child’s conscious awareness – where they can make things happen in the world. intentionally.”
The FAU study also revealed that children navigate functional pairing with the mobile phone in different ways. Distinct clusters in the timing and pitch of infant activity bursts were detected, suggesting that behavioral phenotypes (observable characteristics) of active detection exist—and that dynamics provide a means of identifying them. This new phenotyping method may be useful for preventive care and early treatment of at-risk infants.
Reference: “The Meaning of Movement and Stillness: Signatures of Coordination Dynamics Reveal Infant Agency” by Aliza T. Sloan, Nancy Aaron Jones, and J. any. Scott Kelso, September 18, 2023, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
This research was supported by the FAU Foundation and the National Institute of Mental Health (MH-080838). National Institutes of Health.
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