How Babies Unravel the Origin of Conscious Awareness and Purpose

Summary: Researchers delved into the age-old question of agency, using human infants as their study subjects. By tethering an infant’s foot to a crib-mounted mobile, they observed the moment a baby realizes they can influence the environment.

Using innovative motion-capture technology, they captured the dynamic “birth of agency” in 3D. Their findings shed light on how the organism (baby) interacts with its environment (mobile), marking the transition from spontaneous to intentional behavior.

Key Facts:

  1. The FAU research offers groundbreaking insights into the origins of agency by observing how babies transform spontaneous movement into purposeful action.
  2. Researchers used motion capture technology to record infants’ and mobiles’ movements in 3D, identifying an “aha!” moment when the baby recognizes its causal impact on the environment.
  3. This is the first study in 50 years of baby-mobile experiments to measure mobile motion directly and quantify the emergence of human agency through coordinative analysis.

Source: FAU

Living things act with purpose. But where does purpose come from? How do humans make sense of their relation to the world and realize their ability to effect change?

These fundamental questions of agency – acting with purpose – have perplexed some of the greatest minds in history including Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Erwin Schrödinger and Niels Bohr.

A Florida Atlantic University study reveals groundbreaking insight into the origins of agency using an unusual and largely untapped source – human babies. Since goal-directed action appears in the first months of human life, the FAU research team used young infants as a test field to understand how spontaneous movement transforms into purposeful action.

This shows a baby.
When an infant’s foot is tethered to the mobile, each foot movement causes the mobile to move. Credit: Neuroscience News

For the study, infants began the experiment as disconnected observers. However, when researchers tethered one of the infants’ feet to a crib-mounted baby mobile, infants discovered they could make the mobile move.

To catch this moment of realization like lightning in a bottle, researchers measured infant and mobile movement in 3D space using cutting-edge motion capture technology to uncover dynamic and coordinative features marking the “birth of agency.”

Findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provide a solution to this age-old conundrum. Analysis and dynamical modeling of experiments on human infants suggest that agency emerges from the coupled relation between the organism (baby) and the environment (mobile). But how exactly does this happen?

When an infant’s foot is tethered to the mobile, each foot movement causes the mobile to move. It was thought that the more the mobile moves, the more the infant is stimulated to move, producing yet more mobile motion.

“Positive feedback amplifies and highlights the cause-and-effect relationship between infant and mobile motion,” said J.A. Scott Kelso, Ph.D., senior author and Glenwood and Martha Creech Eminent Scholar in Science at the Center for Complex Systems and Brain Sciences within FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science. “At some critical level of coordination, the infant recognizes its causal powers and transitions from spontaneous to intentional behavior. This aha! moment is marked by an abrupt increase in infant movement rate.”

Aliza Sloan, Ph.D., lead author and a postdoctoral research scientist in FAU’s Center for Complex Systems and Brain Sciences, developed a quantitative “aha!” detector to search for abrupt increases in infant movement rate related to sudden infant discovery.

Sloan’s technique demonstrated that the “birth” of agency can be quantified as a “eureka-like,” pattern-changing phase transition within a dynamical system that spans the baby, the brain, and the environment. The system switches from a less correlated state to a state where both movements of the mobile and the tethered limb are highly coordinated as the infant discovers its functional connection to the mobile.

Although the basic design of the experiment has been used in developmental research since the late 1960s, related research traditionally focused solely on infant activity, treating infant and environment as separate entities. In the 50 years of formal baby-mobile experiments, the FAU study is the first to directly measure the motion of the mobile and to use coordinative analysis to provide quantified observations of the emergence of human agency.

The new approach used in this study frames agency as an emergent property from the functional coupling of organism and environment. Researchers took a deep dive into the baby-mobile interaction through the eyes of Coordination Dynamics – Kelso and colleagues’ theory of how complex living things are coordinated (from cells to society) and how function and order emerge.

Although it was expected that infants would discover their control over the mobile through their coordinated action with the mobile, patterns of infant pausing were striking.

“Our findings demonstrate that it’s not just the infants’ active movements that matter,” said Nancy Jones, Ph.D., co-author, professor in FAU’s Department of Psychology and director of the FAU WAVES Lab.

A complete coordinative analysis of baby motion, mobile motion and their interaction, found that the emergence of agency is a punctuated self-organizing process, with meaning found both in movement and stillness.

“The babies in our study have revealed something really profound: that there is action in the midst of inaction, and inaction in the midst of action. Both provide meaningful information to the infant exploring the world and its place in it,” said Kelso. “The coordination dynamics of movement and stillness jointly constitute the unity of the baby’s conscious awareness – that they can make things happen in the world. Intentionally.”

The FAU study also revealed that infants navigate functional coupling with the mobile in different ways. Distinct clusters in the timing and degree of bursts of infant activity were detected, suggesting that behavioral phenotypes (observable characteristics) of agentive discovery exist – and that dynamics provide a means to identify them. This novel phenotyping method may be useful for preventive care and early treatment of infants at risk. 

Funding: This research was supported by the FAU Foundation and by National Institute of Mental Health (MH-080838) of the National Institutes of Health.

About this consciousness and neurodevelopment research news

Author: Gisele Galoustian
Source: FAU
Contact: Gisele Galoustian – FAU
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Meaning from movement and stillness: Signatures of coordination dynamics reveal infant agency” by Nancy Jones et al. PNAS


Meaning from movement and stillness: Signatures of coordination dynamics reveal infant agency

How do human beings make sense of their relation to the world and realize their ability to effect change?

Applying modern concepts and methods of coordination dynamics, we demonstrate that patterns of movement and coordination in 3 to 4-mo-olds may be used to identify states and behavioral phenotypes of emergent agency.

By means of a complete coordinative analysis of baby and mobile motion and their interaction, we show that the emergence of agency can take the form of a punctuated self-organizing process, with meaning found both in movement and stillness.

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  1. This has proven nothing that any worn out mother can tell just by coming and visiting her at her house while she’s taking care of her children, or a single father. You probably wasted millions of tax payers money to find out that by placing a mobile over the crib soothe a fussy baby women have been using them for decades.

  2. Guys, guys. The amount of time, effort, funds and verbage seems excessive considering every stay at home mom is we’ll aware of the moment when the baby develops agency. She readily tells her partner about it when he returns from the hunt or the office, whatever the case. Please tell me I’m just not catching onto the joke here. Parents will tell you about the focus eyesight the increased reliance on peripheral vision and the outward expression of glee that follows. Immediately. Maybe going and talking with parents would be more efficacious.

  3. From my clinical experience, purposeful behavior presupposes an internal representation of the goal and an internal representation of the meta-outcome (motivation) as some expectation that will bring reward or relief from punishment.

    So purposeful behavior (Agency) presupposes at least 2 internal representations.

    Frustration of purposeful behavior or repeated disruption of purposeful leads to meta beliefs and meta representations at the level of personal Identity. Namely learned Helplessness, learned Hopelessness, or learned Worthlessness.

    Worthlessness = failure to bond to care-givers
    Hopelessness = no point in envisioning a future
    Helplessness = vision of possible future but no point in taking action.

    Positive functional Identity comes from meta beliefs about Self Worth from good care-taker bonding, Future Desires from good responses from environment, and Self Agency from environmental support for behaviors that successfully fulfill desired purpose and reward success.

    Basic Safety disrupted = Worthlessness
    Unreliable Care-taking response = Hopelessness
    Unsupported Agency = Helplessness

    Random movements not yet associated into paired associates.

    “When i do this, that happens.” recognizing cause/effect.

    Repeated representations formed following on after the movement of the tethered foot.

    Recognition of paired associate. Stimulus → recognized response

    Much test and retest behavior with feelings of delight rewarding the hypothesized correlation.

    Refinement of the effect representation and the cause representation. Both representations are refined to reliable enough precision.

    Could use eye tracking to correlate the feedback that creates the internal representations. How could we track the kinesthetic representations also, I wonder?

    Agency emerges from the correlation between stimulus and response as represented in the baby’s mind with visual and kinesthetic representations, I suspect. How to test? Babies this young supposedly do not have visual object-constancy but perhaps visual working memory is enough? Or perhaps they are forming object-constancy through these repetitions.

    Attention to visual stimulus
    Attention to kinesthetic stimulus
    Correlation: “when I do this that happens.”
    When I do not do this, some other thing happens.
    Contrastive analysis between these switching figure and ground back and forth.

    So there is also a 3rd representation presupposed by purposeful behavior (Agency) — the representation of the ground. That is, the other response that happens when I do not take the putative action.

    The action leads to the figure (or desired representation) while the lack of action leads to the undesired representation. The first one provides delight as a reward. The other does not.

    Three representations formed:

    Goal – movement of the mobile
    Current state – no movement of the mobile
    Meta Goal – delight at movement and feelings of Agency

    Repeated action and between periods of inaction test and confirm the correlation is consistent.

    Once sufficiently learned and reconfirmed the baby has integrated that piece of agency/behavior/expectation of response and no longer finds it interesting.

    By this time the baby is onto learning other behaviors and combining behavior to form more complex patterns of agency.

  4. Would be interesting to repeat this experiment with baby’s brain being imaged simultaneously, to determine which part of brain lights up and is in use during this process.

  5. I’m in a crib. I’m 2 years old (confirmed by my mother) and I want out. I call to her, she shows up and I regret my action because she looks exhausted.

    That interests me. Are you aware of any research that would illuminate this type of interaction?

  6. It’s becoming clear that with all the brain and consciousness theories out there, the proof will be in the pudding. By this I mean, can any particular theory be used to create a human adult level conscious machine. My bet is on the late Gerald Edelman’s Extended Theory of Neuronal Group Selection. The lead group in robotics based on this theory is the Neurorobotics Lab at UC at Irvine. Dr. Edelman distinguished between primary consciousness, which came first in evolution, and that humans share with other conscious animals, and higher order consciousness, which came to only humans with the acquisition of language. A machine with only primary consciousness will probably have to come first.

    What I find special about the TNGS is the Darwin series of automata created at the Neurosciences Institute by Dr. Edelman and his colleagues in the 1990’s and 2000’s. These machines perform in the real world, not in a restricted simulated world, and display convincing physical behavior indicative of higher psychological functions necessary for consciousness, such as perceptual categorization, memory, and learning. They are based on realistic models of the parts of the biological brain that the theory claims subserve these functions. The extended TNGS allows for the emergence of consciousness based only on further evolutionary development of the brain areas responsible for these functions, in a parsimonious way. No other research I’ve encountered is anywhere near as convincing.

    I post because on almost every video and article about the brain and consciousness that I encounter, the attitude seems to be that we still know next to nothing about how the brain and consciousness work; that there’s lots of data but no unifying theory. I believe the extended TNGS is that theory. My motivation is to keep that theory in front of the public. And obviously, I consider it the route to a truly conscious machine, primary and higher-order.

    My advice to people who want to create a conscious machine is to seriously ground themselves in the extended TNGS and the Darwin automata first, and proceed from there, by applying to Jeff Krichmar’s lab at UC Irvine, possibly. Dr. Edelman’s roadmap to a conscious machine is at

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