Chapter 1

The Infant in Protodialogue and Affect Attunement: Findings

[Note: the image pertains to an edited version of this manuscript, where this was fig 1.1.]

All forms of infant expressions, from the early neonate stage and onwards, appear to be highly sensitive to the expressions of others. The infant is able to engage in reciprocal contact that exhibits patterns of turntaking and mutual attunement and coincidence of expressions. Even in the first weeks of life we find indications of this readiness to engage in infant-adult dyads that exhibit a dialogue-like "dancing" pattern. Mary Catherine Bateson (1975;1984) terms such a pattern "protoconversation". When recordings of infant-mother interplay are analyzed frame by frame and submitted to acoustic analyses a pattern is sometimes revealed that resembles adult conversation. Within a scant month after birth infants can engage in a pattern of interaction with their parent or caretaker in a kind of flowing alternation of gestures and expressions.1
As pointed out by Newson (1979:92), infants are able to participate both actively and effortlessly in conversation-like exchanges within a format which conforms to a dialogue. (Cf. also Schaffer, 1974). Other infancy researchers have revealed the same pattern, of how turn-taking and coincidence of expressions resembles features exhibited by conversing adults (Stern, 1974; Trevarthen, 1977; Beebe et al., 1979).2 Recordings of interplay with sensitive adults in or before
the seventh week in the child's life reveal such patterns of protoconversation or protodialoging, as well as other features, such as vocalization in unison. In this chapter some case observations, recordings and analyses of infant-adult dyads will be referred to that indicate patterns of mutual completion and follow-up of sounds and movements in a turn-taking manner, which occur in a near-perfect co-ordination in time and space (as recorded and analyzed by the observer). Furthermore, they also exhibit patterns indicative of imitation or copying of expressions that suggest mutual attunement and resemble the way in which intimate adults may engage in dialogue.

Indications of reciprocal contact

In the case of two adults in intimate dialogue we take it for granted that both are active in the co-ordination of their movements. According to the traditional theoretical views of the infant as lacking in contact abilities and being controlled by the mother, one should not expect infant-mother pairs to exhibit patterns that resemble patterns exhibited by intimate adults. But they appear to do so.
Recorded patterns of turntaking and coincidence of expressions between mothers and infants, three to four months old, when statistically analyzed frame by frame are shown to resemble the Gestalt of friendly adults in dialogue, that is, with both partners as active participants.3 A striking characteristics of primordial dialogues between adult intimates, are the manner in which the participants sometimes exhibit a kind of "postural echo" in their body movements. The more friendly they are the more the rhythm of their respective movements appears to lock together: When a film of intimate adults in dialogue, shot at 48 frames per second, is analyzed frame by frame, sudden small movements by both participants are seen to start on exactly the same frame of film. For example, as the speaker jerks his body with the emphasis he makes on different words, so the listener makes tiny, matching movements of some part of the body. (Morris,19.., p.85)4
Infant-adult dyads exhibit a finely tuned coincidence of expressions and bodily movements that resembles intimate adults in dialogue, indicating that both contributes to the intercoordination of turntaking and coincidence of expressions.5 In his laboratory recordings of mother-infant interaction Colwyn Trevarthen demonstrates how expressions are coordinated. A mirror is behind the back of the baby which reflects to the camera the face of the parent leaning towards the baby, permitting concurrent shots of both participants facing each other. In this way the coincidence of their expressions and gestures are revealed, while auditory analyses reveal the precisely timed turn-taking. One infant, for example, 34 days after birth, excited by the beat of mother's repeated utterances, responds by a resonant coo of two sounds ("a gu"), each lasting 200 mseconds, that is exactly placed to fit the time space between two of mother's utterances.6 The girl baby smiles at the mother's making sympathetic expressions and moves hands and legs, cooes or makes silent lip and tongue movements while lifting her hands in synchrony with these oral expressions. There is a precise combination and coordination of movements between them.7
There is even an intra-individual asymmetry in the infant's bodily expressions and gestures. When speaking, an adult will tend to raise the right eyebrow higher than the left, sometimes even with the right side of the mouth higher than the left side. Most commonly in infants under three or four months of age the right hand will take the lead. For example, in the above case studied by Trevarthen, the baby girl, while lifting her hands in synchrony with oral expressions, has her right hand raised high, above shoulder level, while the left hand is held forward or pulled back against her chest or her side.8
Snapshot of another case of mother-infant interaction is shown in Fig.1.1. Here the infant, 11 days old, shows a certain asymmetry when raising her hands, using them, as it were, in her gesticulating expression. Mother and child appear to be in reciprocal gestural and bodily attunement. The gestures and bodily postures of each may be seen to reflect a degree o coincidence of expressions. Not so, when the same child, 7 weeks older, is probingly being approached by her great grandmother (lower snapshots in Fig.1.1.) But even here, when at the beginning there is distance, as shown by my video-record of the same event, there is a gradual mutual approach and signs of similar gestures between the two, with an age span of 94 years between them.
Even in the opening weeks of life the infant and the mother, or, another careperson, seem to establish co-ordination and soon come to exhibit cyclical patterns of replication and complementation of expressive acts. Infant researchers disagree about the time of the advent of the sensori-motoric prerequisites in the infant to respond to the eye-contact and smiling gestures of the other. But at any rate, in the third month, and sometimes earlier, the perfect attunement and turn-taking can be observed in the proto-conversational "dance" with the mother, father, or caretaker accepted by the infant. When video-recording, one is struck by its beauty and expressiveness of this "dance" of movements and sounds, and by the apparent attunement of the participants' expressions. I have observed this even in the interplay between the baby girl shown above (Fig. 1.1 (i)) and her mother. There is clearly reciprocal contact between them.9 While the variety of the sounds and mouth movements increases as the child grows older, even the baby girl at 11 days shows a variety of facial and bodily expressions.
Many revealing recordings of infant-parent interplay are provided by the series of videoproduction on birth and baby body language, used in the Dutch Orion group program for home-training. In a tape recording of a normal birth by the mother in a supported squatting position, we see how the newborn recovers from the birth process and appears to seek eye-contact. When relaxing in her mother's hand in a warm water bath she looks around, as if in quest of something or somebody.10 Already at the birth, the, the child appears to extend an invitation to engage is a primary form of bodily interaction, which, in a way, involves a continuation of the contact with the mother's body, rhythmic movements and sounds, experienced prior to birth.

Figure 1.1. Snapshots of interplay between (i) Katharina (11 days) and her mother; and (ii) when 9 weeks old with her great grandmother (94 years old).

Even prematurely born infants, whom the parents carry against their skin in accordance with "the kangaroo method", are capable of establishing spontaneous contact with the one carrying them. Consider, for example, the case of little Naseeria (six weeks old), born three months prematurely, who with closed eyes and almost incapable of movements, responds with its little voice to the father's soft, high voice modulation in a turn-taking manner, while being carried and held against the skin of the father's breast.11
A recording of her, three weeks old, shows her to be smiling and gazing at her father with hand movements that indicate an immediate contact (Cf. Fig.1.2). When six week old, while lying against his skin with closed eyes, she engages in a duet with him. Naseeria is born about three months prematurely. Already three weeks old (weight 1040 grams) she is regularly taken out of the incubator and carried against the bare skin of her parent in accordance with the "kangaroo method". While the mother is recovering from an operation, Naseeria's father has taken over, carrying her halfway inside his shirt. He is clearly completely absorbed in her, whispering in a sotto voice "Naseeria. Naseeria", while she, between going to sleep, responds with smiling gazes and moving arms.
When Naseeria is six weeks old they engage in a kind of "singing" together, he with his soft soprano voice, singing "AAA", and her responding "aaa" with her little voice. They engage in a duet in a turn-taking manner that generates this pattern:

AAA, aaa, AAA, aaa, AAA, aaa, AAA, aaa, etc.

Thus, even nine and six weeks before term, the prematurely born baby girl recorded at a hospital in Holland, shows clear signs of being able to engage in reciprocal contact with her father, first with smiling gazes and movements of hands, later with sounds in duet with her father.
A curious incident occurred during my showing at a lecture the recording of Naseeria's duet with her father. When Naseeria had been emitting one of her aaa-sounding I was startled by an echo sound in the same pitch suddenly heard from the audience. It turned out that one of the students had brought along her six weeks old daughter, Miriam.12 Not a sound had previously been heard during the lecture until the recording of Naseeria's little voice was played, and Miriam emitted a sound in the same pitch. Miriam's sounding her voice could be an unrelated random occurrence. This would be the only reasonable interpretation if one regards the newly born infant as autistic, incapable of relating to the other in contact. Studies of newborns in hospital surroundings, however, reveal them to react to each other's crying. The case of Naseeria's duet with her father, and the case of Miriam's possible respons to Naseeria's voice, are consistent with recent infancy research findings about the capacity of infants, even newborns, to respond to human sounds and faces and engage in reciprocal contact.

Figure 1.2 Snapshots from videorecordings of a little girl (12 weeks prematurely born) (i) when three weeks old (upper photo), and (ii) when six weeks old engaging in a duet with her father carrying her in "kangaroo"-manner. When there is no eye contact (lower photo). In a turn-taking manner the pair of them generates this series: aaa AAA aaa AAA aaa AAA aaa AAA.....before she falls asleep.13

Thus, even the newly and prematurely born infant appears able to engage in reciprocal communication in a manner that warrant the description "protoconversation" or "protodialogue".
The chance of this occurring with a parent with a high voice, or pitching the voice in a high tone, is greater than when the infant is faced with a stranger, especially if his voice is rumbling low. But even a stranger, keeping silent, may enter into such a protoconversation, as I have experienced at the back row of an audience, where a few seats besides me a little baby boy on the lap of his mother caught my expression. We began engaging in a kind of protodialoging until the boys excited exclaims compelled the mother to stop us. I have recordings of infants from one to three months old, in happy exchange with their parent, mother or father, or with another adult person. This does not mean that the protodialogic "dance" occur all the time, or that it cannot be interrupted. For example, the child may turn for a moment, looking curiously at the person holding the video-camera. Or, it may grow restless, feeling hunger. Or the mother or careperson may suddenly realize that time is running, and change into an instrumental caring behavior with his or her attention elsewhere. Or she may be speaking to the child, "You like this, do you, honey?", in a way which clearly is no invitation to imitation or to a reply, since she replies herself "Yes, you do. I can see you do!", as if she carries on a conversation on behalf of herself and the child, putting words, at it were, to the mutual understanding which she may feel that they share.14*)
The infant is easy to bring into co-ordination with the caretaker. But the infant may also be the one who extends the invitation for the contact, for example, when lying in a corner of the room and calling upon the adult or sibling who is passing by. If the other does not respond to the infant's initiative, for example, by assuming a sober, masked or unresponsive face, even the recently born baby shows fewer smiles, turns her head away, or even turns to tears (Bruner, 1983). In an experimental set-up, to be returned to in chapter 3, Trevarthen and Murray, record how there is beautiful reciprocity between mother and child, even when linked through audio-visual monitors. When the video-record of the mother's smiling and gestural participation is played back to the baby, the baby reacts by turning away and withdrawal. The reciprocity had been broken.

Indications of imitation and shared feelings

Some researchers attribute imitation of adult's gestures and such movements as mouth opening and tongue protrusion to infants just 2 or 3 weeks old (Meltzoff and Moore, 1977). Others express doubt about the presence of this ability at the neonatal period.
Imitation, for example, of tongue protrusion is regarded as a mystery in terms of information processing models, according to Elisabeth Bates 15 , and doubted by Schaffer (1984: 25;121). He points out that the copying of such actions means converting visual images into their proprioceptive equivalent; "it requires a degree of inter-modal integration not found in, say, imitating someone's hand movement."16 In any case, the parent's readiness to imitate the infant and reflect back its gestures and vocalizations, plays a prepotent role.
Trevarthen (1986) describes imitation of tongue protrusion and mouth opening soon after birth in his term of "alteroception": The expressive movements of the adult invites a process of communicative perception of the other in the intersubjectivity space in a way that involves imitation on the part of the neonate, and which depends on specific cerebral response to body movements of the other.
The neonate has already had months of experience of being in rhythmic synchronization with the medium in which he has existed prior to birth. But this is not an experience that prepare for the praxis of reciprocity in interaction, such as listening and responding with a complementary gesture to the gesture of the other, and sometimes, perhaps more difficult, responding to a gesture with a similar gesture, such as smiling or raising a hand.
With regard to expressions of affects, there are reports of infants, two days old, that appear to imitate the smile, the frown, or the surprise face, of the adult other.17 Whatever the interpretation may be of this, as the infants grow older they show clear signs of being able to "translate" the affect expression of one sensory modality into another sensory modality. Some considers this capacity for amodal perception to be innate.18
Daniel Stern has identified the kind of affect attunement that appears to bind the members of the dyad together, even when they are not facing each other, and which is revealed when something goes amiss or the adult's attention is turned elsewhere. He defines affect attunement as "the performance of behaviors that express the quality of feeling of a shared affect state without imitating the exact behavioral expression of the inner state."19 Stern finds affect attunement most clearly manifested between mother and infant in the eight or nine month. Affective imitation behavior comes earlier. While this pattern maintains the focus of attention upon the forms of externalised behavior, affect attunement shifts the focus to the quality of the feeling that may be shared. According to Stern, some kind of matching occur, but it is largely cross-modal. For example, the intensity level and duration of the infant's voice is matched by the mother's body movements, or, the infant's arm movement are matched by features of the mother's voice20 (as it appears to the observer).
Even if some researchers voice doubt about the ability of the newborn child to imitate the gestures of the adult, recordings indicate that at least in the first two or three months, the infant seems capable of participating in protodialogic attunement with the adult other, and to engage in mutual completion and follow-up of non-verbal gestures and voice intonation in reciprocal contact.
There appears to be a capacity to imitate or follow-up the other's expressions of affect, even to sense and react to the other's feeling in a cross- and a-modal manner. As Daniel Stern puts it, the infant appears able to take information received in one sensori modality and somehow translate it into another, and perhaps even operates across and above the various modalities in an a-modal way which can then be recognized in any of the sensori modalities. They show an amazing ability to sense and react to others' affective expressions in a way that translates and crosses sensory modalities, for example, sensing the mother's mood or feeling the intensity of her fading feelings. Newson (1979) stresses the challenge to understand something about "those mysterious processes which underlie the baby's capacity to share states of feeling" with actual others. Not only appears the infant able to sense its own movement or position (proprioception), as well as the other's through what Trevarthen terms alteroception. There are even indications of an innate capacity for amodal perception in the infant. That is, a capacity to experience affects and feelings in a supra-modal manner, not bounded to any specific modality. Stern points out:

"Infants thus appear to have an innate general capacity, which can be called amodal perception, to take information received in one sensory modality and somehow translate it into another sensory modality. We do not know how they accomplish this task. The information is probably not experienced as belonging to any one particular sensory mode. More likely it transcends mode or channel and exists in some unknown supra-modal form. It is not, then, a simple issue of a direct translation across modalities. Rather, it involves an encoding into a still mysterious amodal representation, which can then be recognized in any of the sensory modes."21

Already Darwin, in his pioneering cross-cultural study of emotional expressions, points to an innate ground. Observing his first-born child he declares that him became convinced that the infant "understood a smile and received pleasure from seeing one, answering it by another, at much too early an age to have learnt anything by experience."22 He reports from an incident when the infant was a few days over six months old, and the nurse pretended to cry,

"and I saw that his face instantly assumed a melancholy expression, with the corners of the mouth strongly depressed; now this child could rarely have seen any other child crying, and never a grown-up person crying...."23

Since Darwin doubted that the child at so early an age could have reasoned on the subject of grief, he offers this explanation: An innate feeling must have told the child that the pretended crying of his nurse expressed grief; and this through the instinct of sympathy excited grief in the child.

In quest for explanation

Above some observations, recordings, and analyses of infant-adult interactions have been referred to, indicating that the infant, even in the first weeks of life, is capable of engaging in dyads that exhibits these features:

(i) There is a mutual completion and follow-up of sounds and movements in a perfectly timed turn-taking manner that invites descriptions in terms of protodialoging in the metaphors of "conversation" and "dance",

(ii) involving a coincidence of gestures and expressions
that seems to involve sensori-modal imitation and cross-modal attunement,

(iii) which may be indicative of the occurrence of shared understanding of feelings in an immediate sense.

The question is: How can such features be accounted for?
During what Schaffer (1984: 19; 23-24) calls the initial encounters, the neonate soon exhibits a remarkable sensitivity to the mother's voice and a visual attraction to the face. This first postnatal stage of the child's entry into the social world is termed "pseudo-dialogical" by Schaffer by virtue of its characteristic asymmetry. That is, unlike the adult, the neonate does not understand that it is involved in interaction. The newborn is not aware that a dialogue demands symmetry and reciprocity. The process is yet to come of a culturally mediated acquired ability of know the cultural demands on reciprocity. According to Schaffer, the infant will come, through a process of decentration, to acquire an understanding of what is involved in a dialogue, for example that it is maintained by two participants, who may exchange their roles (Cf. also Bremner, 1988: 197). But this knowledge in a mediate sense on the part of an infant in a later phase should not be confused with the demonstrated social understanding in an immediate sense in infancy, and which such subsequent mediated awareness would require.
Such an immediate pre-understanding would be unmediated by verbal language, that is, it would be immediate in a linguistic sense (not necessarily in a body language sense). True, while being carried prior to birth the child may become accustomed to the specific rhythm and tonal characteristics of the mother's language culture.24 But this cannot account for the apparent reciprocity of gestural expressions, or for the visual and motoric indications of shared feelings.
According to Trevarthen (1980) there seems to be an innate intersubjective capacity for proto-conversation. He has studied, video-recorded and analyzed the very young infants in face-to-face interactions with their mothers, tracing the development of intersubjective motor control in infants.25 He regards the remarkable precocity of newborns for emotional and expressive communication with the adult other as an indication of an inborn capacity for the beginning of what he terms "primary intersubjectivity".26 He declares that the remarkable precocity of newborns for communication with the emotional and expressive states of other persons, indicates that human cerebral perceptuo-motor systems include a great set that has inherent specialization for engagement with mental processes in other human subjects.
The material presented by him and others indicates that the early stages of development of this capacity in the child seems to evolve from within, and not as a result or impressions of a design that originates wholly outside the child and enters through social learning. Mother and infant appear both to be contributing to a mutual intercoordination for turn-taking and coincidence of expressions. This points to an apparent innate readiness in the human baby to relate to another human being, and more than that, to an innate capacity for the beginning of intersubjectivity in the form of interpersonal and cooperative understanding.27 As indicated above, Trevarthen (1980:319) illustrates such patterns by filmed sequences that show how expressions are coordinated between mother and infant in the second month, exhibiting precisely timed turntaking and coincidence of expressions.
This appears difficult to account for in terms of two separate organisms externally related through overt stimuli and responses, or in the input-output terms of two information-processing systems externally linked via mediating signal devices. The term "imitation" easily entails such a view upon the infant and the adult as externally coupled. When Bates (1977:332), for example, asks for convincing explanations of imitation and finds none in terms of information processing, or when Schaffer (1984: 25; 121) expresses considerable doubts about the presence of the ability of imitation in the neonatal period, their questions reflect this perspective: an external relation between two independent centers of bodily and nervous organization. One would not apply the term "imitation" to the behavior of a single organization, for example to the infant's or the adult's repeating his own expressions. That is, it does not make sense to say that a given individual imitates himself. But then, are the above patterns exhibited by individuals, or by one dyadic organization in which individuals partake? To this question, concerning the relation between the level of observations and perspectives in explanatory efforts, I shall turn in the next chapter.


1Mary Catherine Bateson...1975...1984
2Daniel N. Stern: The structure and goal of mother-infant play. Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry. 13, 1974, pp.402-423. Colwyn Trevarthen: Descriptive analyzes of infant communication behavior. In: H.R. Schaffer (ed.): Studies of Mother-Infant Interaction, Academic Press, London 1977. V. Beebe, D. Stern and J. Jaffe: The kinesic rhythm of mother-infant interaction. In: A.W. Siegman and F. Feldstein (eds.): Of speech and time, Erlbaum, Hillsdale, N.J. 1979.
3B. Beebe, J. Jaffe, S. Feldstein, K. Mays and D. Alson: Interpersonal Timing: The application of an adult dialogue model to mother-infant vocal and kinesic interactions. In: T.M. Field and N. Fox (eds.): Social Perceptions in Infants. Ablex, Norwookd, N.J., 1985.
4Desmond Morris:..........W.S. Condon and W.D. Ogston: Sound Film Analysis of Normal and Pathological Behavior Patterns, Journal of Mental and nervous Disorders, 143, p.338-347.
5C. Trevarthen: Development of Intersubjective Motor Control in Infants. In: M.G. Wade and H.T.A. Whiting (eds.): Motor Development, Martinus Nijhof, Dordrecht, 1986, pp. 209- 261; Bebe et al., op.cit., 1985.
6Colwyn Trevarthen....1980:319
7Colwyn Trevarthen, ...1986, p.226
8C. Trevarthen, op.cit., p. 226.
9Even though the mother is touching the child, and, hence, may be seen to elicit reflex reactions on part of the infant.
10S. van Rees and A. Schoon: The first hour, Mediatheek Lichtamstaal, Stramproy, the Netherlands.
11Saskia van Rees and Richard de Leeuw, Born to soon: The Kangaroo Method, Mediatheeek Lichtaamstaal, Body Language Foundation, Ans Aarts video productions, Stramproy, the Netherlands 1987 (35 minutes videotape).
12My student in psychology at the University of Bergen, Gry Stålseth and her daughter, Miriam, is acknowledged for this incident.
13Saskia van Rees and R. de Leeuw: Born too Soon: The Kangaroo Method, Mediatheek Lichtaamstaal, Body Language Foundation, Ans Aarts video productions, Stramproy, the Netherlands 1987 (35 min. videotape). I am grateful to Colwyn Trevarthen and Katherina Logotheti for showing me this recording, and to Ans Aarts for providing me with a copy.
14 *)When referring to the mother, father, or careperson, I sometimes indiscriminately use the personal pronoun "she" without implying that the adult has to be the mother or another female. I have recorded infant-and-father "protoconversations" with the same characteristics as those of infant-mother interplay.
15E.Bates, et al.: The Emergence of Symbols, Academic Press, New York, 1979, s.332.
16H.R.Schaffer: The Child's Entry into a Social World, Academic Press, London 1984, p.25.
17Field et al.,1982, (referred to by Stern, op.cit., pp.50-51).
18D. Stern, op.cit., p.51.
19D. Stern: The Interpersonal World of the Infant, Basic Books, New York 1985, p.142.
20D. Stern, op.cit., p.141.
21 D. Stern, op.cit., p.51.
22Charles Darwin: The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animal. The Philosophical Library, New York 1955, p.358.
23Darwin: op.cit., p.358.
24There are indications of this.....Stern...(se norsk)
25C. Trevarthen: 'Development of Intersubjective Motor Control in Infants', in: M.G. Wade and H.T.A. Whiting (Eds.) Motor Development, Martinus Nijhoff, Dordrecth, 1986.
26C. Trevarthen: 'Development of Intersubjective Motor Control in Infants' in: M.G. Wade and H.T.A. Whiting (Eds.) Motor Development, Dordrecth, Martinus Nijhoff, 1986.
27C. Trevarthen: 'The Foundations of Intersubjectivity: Development of Interpersonal and Cooperative Understanding in Infants', in: D. Olson (Ed.) The Social Foundations of Language and Thought, Norton and Co., New York 1980, pp.316-342.