Thursday, May 1, 2008

I, me, repeated

Why The Baby in the Mirror? Well, it's about a close-up view of small children, of course, an attempt to reflect an under-examined part of our lives back at us. But the title also points at what became a big theme for me in the writing of this book: the child's construction of a self. Mirrors have a practical importance for the developmental psychologist, to go with their metaphorical ones. Those big, silver-backed bits of glass are some of the tools we use for finding out what infants understand about themselves. 

I knew I was on to something with this book title when I looked on YouTube for examples of babies looking at themselves. Here's Joey. From the wobbly way he's standing, I guess he's around eight months:  

Next up in my unscientific sample we have a five-month-old, who is vocalising nicely, and also doing that thing I describe in the book of trying to grab the frame of the mirror and pull it closer, as if his reflection were an object that could be possessed:

Check out the motherese in this clip too.

Little Isaac (not my own) clearly shows the 'flutter of jubilant activity' which Lacan described in relation to babies' responses to their own reflections:

I'm not very kind to Lacan in the book, but he was right about the intensity of babies' emotional reactions to the sight of their own reflections. 

All of these babies look to me as though they see the reflection in the mirror as another individual, separate from themselves. In other words, they show the same understanding that Darwin described in his infant son, Doddy: 
When four and a half months old, he repeatedly smiled at my image and his own in a mirror, and no doubt mistook them for real objects; but he showed sense in being evidently surprised at my voice coming from behind him. Like all infants he much enjoyed thus looking at himself, and in less than two months perfectly understood that it was an image; for if I made quite silently any odd grimace, he would suddenly turn round to look at me. He was, however, puzzled at the age of seven months, when being out of doors he saw me on the inside of, a large plate-glass window, and seemed in doubt whether or not it was an image.
At six months, Doddy shows an understanding of the physics of reflection: he knows that the image of his father is connected to the real person standing behind him. But he doesn't yet fully connect the baby in the mirror with his own self. Here's how I describe Athena's behaviour at about the same age, as she is being held up close to the wardrobe mirror: 
Her eyes are wide. She stares at her reflection and then darts a couple of glances into the corners of the mirror, as though establishing the limits of this weird version of reality. Then she reaches forward excitedly, patting at the glass with both hands. There is a gleeful shout, a smile of pleasure, but her eyes are still active, looking the reflected stranger up and down in what could almost be taken for suspicion. She stays rapt like this for quite a while. She may be noting the connection between her own actions and those she sees reflected: when I bat my hands forward like that, the baby in the mirror does it too. From the inside, from the sense that she has of her own body’s movements and position, she has information about what she is doing; and now the mirror reflects the same information back at her. She can imitate its imitations. She recognises that this specular creature has something to do with herself, and no one else. At the same time, she knows that it is not her; it exists in a different location, flat against our old walnut-wood wardrobe, and it does its corresponding at a distance.
We then try the famous 'rouge test'. One of us surreptitiously dabs a smear of rouge onto Athena's nose, and we wait for her reaction. She shows the same interest in the baby in the mirror, but pays no particular attention to the blob of make-up, nor attempts to wipe it off. She would rub her nose if it was hurting: she knows where it is, and she knows how to reach it. But she doesn't realise that the nose in the mirror is that same nose, the one attached to her. 

Children don't pass this test of mirror self-recognition until around the time they start walking. Back to YouTube. Here's Kyle (sans culottes) passing the rouge test: 

This is how I describe this stage in the book: 
At fourteen months, faced with her reflection in the same mirror, her first action is to say her own name. This next stage of mirror self-recognition, known as ‘identification’, coincides with the beginnings of the use of language in a self-referring way. The baby in the mirror is Athena. She names her, gives a little embarrassed chuckle, and makes a big sigh, as though, after all these patient months of waiting for her self to turn up, it has finally done so. She glances at the mirror’s edge, then sings a brief, funny tune to her reflection. She touches the glass, but this time the gesture is about communication rather than exploration. She reaches her arms wide, trying to embrace the whole of the image, then leans forward and gives it a kiss. Poised with her red-blotched tissue, Lizzie tries the rouge test again. Her nose newly spotted, Athena looks back at her image, glances away, then does a double take, gazing back at herself with more purpose. She looks at her mother, touching her nose, then turns to the mirror again.
‘Look!’ she says, with genuine surprise.
‘What is it?’ Lizzie asks.
Athena looks back at her with a big grin. The test has become a game. She bats at the spot in the mirror, then touches her own blotched features. She is doing something quite remarkable: seeing herself as others see her, and somehow identifying herself with the image. More than that, she is mapping specific parts of that image—its nose, in this case—onto the parts of her own person. She is showing that she understands the image as an image, a representation of the thing rather than the thing itself. On top of that, she understands that the image is real, not a fantasy or hallucination. For the French psychologist Henri Wallon, this was a vitally important step in the growth of the imagination. After experience of the mirror, the world that the child experiences is no longer a purely perceptual one; it is one that contains representations. Once reality can be represented, it can become transformed through imagination into anything at all.
Finally, in an earlier post I talked about the evolutionary significance of mirror self-recognition. Here's a bonobo, proving that it's not an exclusively human ability: 

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