Summary: The researchers delved into the age-old question of agency, using human children as study subjects. Chaining the baby’s legs to a mobile phone mounted on the cot, they watched the moment the baby realizes that he can influence the environment.
Using innovative motion-capture technology, they captured the dynamic “birth of the agency” in 3D. Their findings shed light on how the organism (child) interacts with its environment (mobile), which marks the transition from spontaneous to intentional behavior.
- FAU research offers groundbreaking insight into the origins of agency by observing how babies transform spontaneous movement into purposeful action.
- Researchers used motion-sensing technology to record the movement of children and mobile phones in 3D and identified the “aha!” moment when a child recognizes their causal impact on the environment.
- This is the first study in 50 years of experiments with children’s mobile devices to directly measure mobile movement and quantify the emergence of human activity through coordination analysis.
Living things act purposefully. But where does purpose come from? How do people understand their relationship to the world and realize their ability to effect change?
These basic questions agency – purposeful action – has baffled some of history’s greatest minds including Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Erwin Schrödinger and Niels Bohr.
A Florida Atlantic University study reveals groundbreaking insight into the agency’s origins using an unusual and largely untapped resource — human children. Since purposeful action emerges in the first months of human life, the FAU research team used young infants as a testing ground to understand how spontaneous movement turns into purposeful action.
For the study, infants began the experiment as detached observers. However, when the researchers strapped the legs of one of the infants to a baby mobile mounted on a cot, the infants found that they could move the mobile.
To capture this lightning-in-a-bottle moment of realization, the researchers measured children’s and mobile movement in 3D space using state-of-the-art motion-sensing technology to reveal the dynamic and coordination elements marking the “birth of agency.”
The findings, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provide a solution to this age-old conundrum. Analysis and dynamic modeling of human infant experiments suggest that momentum emerges from a coupled relationship between organism (infant) and environment (mobile). But how exactly is this happening
When the child’s foot is strapped to the mobile, every movement of the foot causes the mobile to move. It was believed that the more the movement moves, the more the child is stimulated to move, creating even more movement.
“Positive feedback reinforces and emphasizes the cause-and-effect relationship between infant movement and mobile movement,” said JA Scott Kelso, Ph.D., lead author and Glenwood and Martha Creech Distinguished Scientist of the Center for Complex Systems and Brain Sciences. within FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science. “At a certain critical level of coordination, the child recognizes its causal forces and moves from spontaneous to intentional behavior. This aha! the moment is marked by a sudden increase in the rate of movement of the infant.’
Aliza Sloan, Ph.D., lead author and postdoctoral researcher in FAU’s Center for Complex Systems and Brain Sciences, developed a quantitative “aha!” detector to look for the sudden increase in baby movement speed associated with a baby’s sudden appearance.
Sloan’s technique showed that the “birth” of action can be quantified as a “eureka-like,” pattern-changing phase transition within a dynamic system that includes the child, the brain, and the environment. The system switches from a less correlated state to a state where both the movements of the mobile and tethered limbs are highly coordinated as the child discovers its functional connection to the mobile.
Although the basic experimental design has been used in developmental research since the late 1960s, related research has traditionally focused only on infant activity and treated the infant and the environment as separate entities. In 50 years of formal experiments with children’s mobile devices, the FAU study is the first to directly measure the movement of a mobile device and use coordination analysis to provide quantified observations of the emergence of human action.
The new approach used in this study frames agency as a property arising from the functional connection of the organism and the environment. Researchers took a deep dive into the child-mobile interaction through the eyes of Coordination Dynamics – Kelso and his theory of how complex living things are coordinated (from cells to society) and how function and order emerge.
Although infants were expected to discover their control of the mobile through coordinated action with the mobile, patterns of infant pausing were striking.
“Our findings show that it’s not just the active movements of infants that matter,” said co-author Nancy Jones, Ph.D., a professor in FAU’s Department of Psychology and director of the FAU WAVES Lab.
A complete coordination analysis of children’s movement, mobile movement and their interaction found that the creation of an agenda is an intermittent self-organizing process that is important both in movement and at rest.
“The babies in our study revealed something really profound: that in the midst of inaction is action, and in the midst of action is inaction. Both provide meaningful information to the child as he explores the world and his place in it,” said Kelso. “The dynamics of coordinating movement and stillness together form the unity of the child’s conscious awareness—that they can do things in the world. Intentionally.”
The FAU study also revealed that infants control the functional connection with the cell phone in different ways. Distinct clusters in the timing and degree of bursts of infant activity were detected, suggesting that there are behavioral phenotypes (observable characteristics) of discovering agents—and that the dynamics provide a means of identifying them. This new phenotyping method may be useful for preventive care and early treatment of at-risk infants.
Funding: This research was supported by the FAU Foundation and the National Institute of Mental Health (MH-080838) of the National Institutes of Health.
About this consciousness and neurodevelopment research news
Author: Gisele Galoustian
Contact: Gisele Galoustian – FAU
Picture: Image is credited to Neuroscience News
Original Research: Open access.
“The meaning of movement and stillness: Signatures of coordination dynamics reveal infant momentum” by Nancy Jones et al. PNAS
The meaning of movement and stillness: Signatures of coordination dynamics reveal infant momentum
How do human beings understand their relationship to the world and realize their capacity to effect change?
By applying modern concepts and methods of coordination dynamics, we demonstrate that patterns of movement and coordination in 3- to 4-year-old children can be used to identify states and behavioral phenotypes of emergent activity.
Through a complete coordination analysis of children’s and mobile movement and their interaction, we show that the emergence of an agenda can take the form of an interrupted self-organization process, which is important both in movement and at rest.