14 Beginnings of cultural learning

THE FORMATIVE PROCESS OF SOCIETY: The Transition from Natural to Cultural History, at The Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies ZiF (Scientific organizer: Günter Dux), University of Bielefeld 17-19 Nov. 1994.

by Stein Bråten and Cowyn Trevarthen

Introduction: Instances of early interplay as indicative of infant intersubjectivity
Drawing upon infancy research findings during the last 25 years this paper concerns the nurture and nature of (proto)conversational competence and perspective-taking for the child's entry into culture. Our emphasis is on social-emotional co-ordination and on the intersubjective and dialogic nature of the developing mind. We postulate the essential foundation structure for human intersubjectivity as innate and already complex in the earliest phase of postnatal life, manifested, for example, in these episodic occurrences (presented on video or overheads in the talk)::

*1 Premature infant (at 32 weeks' gestational age) in duet with father (recorded by van Rees & de Leeuw);
*2 11-days-old on the nursing table in interplay with mother (recorded by Bråten);
*3 6-week-old in protoconversation with her mother (recorded by Trevarthen).

They engage emotionally to constitute a subject-subject dyad in a mutual pleasure and excitement for communion, exhibiting perfectly timed co-ordinated patterns of turn-taking and mutual attunement of gestures. From micro-analyses of vocal and other features of such infant-adult engagements, Trevarthen (1977, 1979) has found evidence of an innately grounded intersubjectivity.

Inherent dyadic structure: The virtual other mechanism
In order to account for these very complex behaviours and the delicate emotionally regulated engagement between infant and companion (instanced in *1 - *3) we must assume human infants to be endowed with a cerebral system -- probably organized within sub-cortical, brainstem nerve cell networks -- that is prepared to connect with and respond adaptively to that peculiar variety of vocalizations, gestures and bodily movements which human companions can offer.

An explanation of this connective capacity has been offered by Bråten (1986/88a, 1988b) in terms of a 'virtual other' mechanism: the newborn is endowed with a dual cerebral system with circuits that give rise to the immediate co-participation of a virtual other, a non-specific companion perspective that complements the bodily self perspective with the operational efficiency of an actual companion perspective. In virtue of its inherent companion space with a virtual other that invites inclusion of actual others, the developing mind recreates and transforms itself in the same coherent circular format in these two alternating self-other organizing modes:

(i) engagements in (proto)dialogue with actual others;
(ii) self-engagement (in externalized or internal dialogue with the virtual other).

The episodic occurrences *1 - *3 are instances of (i). Early instances of (ii) are self-imitation and engagement with 'transitional objects' (Winnicott 1953), and -- later in ontogeny -- so-called "ego-centric speech" and self-conversational thought, sometimes manifested in our muttering to ourselves.
Levels of intersubjective attunement: perspectives as felt, taken and simulated
The dyads exemplified by *1 - *3 turn triangular in the secondary mode of intersubjectivity when objects in the world (around 8 or 9 months) are brought into focus of joint attention and emotional referencing. The primary mode of affectively tuning to and relating to others in felt immediacy -- in the lived momentary sense of Einfühlung and Erlebnis -- is later in ontogeny supplemented (not replaced) by a higher-order mode of relating to the world and others in it in representational mediacy by virtue of generalized means of symbolic representations and mental simulations (in the symbolic and self-reflective sense of Erfahrung).

Experimental perturbation of (proto)conversation and affect attunement
Among experimental results that serve to illustrate different modes of relating to self and the other with respect to intersubjective reciprocity and its emotional co-ordination, are these examples:
*4 Mothers and two-month-olds: Double-video experiments reveal reciprocity and different reactions in the two-month-old and the mother when unwittingly faced with a replay of the companion from the previous live protoconversation (Murray & Trevarthen 1985, 1986). In the unperturbed sequence they demonstrate primary intersubjective attunement in the format of (i). In the perturbed sequence, reacting to the replay replacement the infants resort to self-comforting with signs of distress in the format of (ii). When the mothers are faced with a replay replacement, they continue to talk, now in an imperative manner, to the replay child which they now construct and simulate, illustrating an advanced capacity beyond the level of primary and secondary intersubjectivity.
*5 Mothers and nine-month-olds: When objects are brought into play at the level of secondary intersubjectivity, inviting a sharing of perspectives and joint emotional referencing, the adult will vocally accompany the child's playing in affect attunement, with shared activation contours felt by the child. When mothers then upon Daniel Stern's request force themselves to get out of tune (which some of them find very hard) the infants invariably stop playing and turn to look at the mother. Here the felt sharing of 'vitality affects' in affect attunement is revealed upon its break-down (Stern 1985).

*6 Students in perturbed task communication: Paired students in experiments with Blakar's (1973) 'map design' are handed maps they believe to be identical, except for the route marked on one of the maps. The task is to communicate that route to the other, sitting face-to-face, prevented from viewing the source map with the route. As the maps actually are different, they run into trouble and react in different ways. One of the reactions is to resort to simulation of the other's mental processes from a reversed perspective (Bråten 1974). Here again, like the mothers in the perturbed sequence of the double-video experiment (*4), appears to be revealed an ability to mentally simulate others, achieved at an advanced level of intersubjectivity that perhaps may be termed "tertiary".

Levels of intersubjective attunement and understanding in early ontogeny
Primary (from the first months): direct sensitivity to the actual others' expressions of feeling in intimate subject-subject contact. "Dialogic closure" (Bråten 1988b) in protoconversation is sustained by communion of emotions. In months 6 - 9 the first ritualized "protosigns" are learned in play. (Trevarthen 1974, 1990a).

Secondary (from about 9 to 18 months): objects of joint attention and emotional referencing to objects brought into play; elevation of the shared topic of meaningfulness in joint awareness; emergence of protolanguage and cooperative use of objects (Trevarthen & Hubley 1978). Deferred imitation as imitative learning (Meltzoff 1988; Tomasello et al. 1993). Perspectives are felt in joint attention and re-enactment upon objects.

Tertiary2 (achieved between 2 and 6 years): perspective-taking in virtue of symbolic representations and -- later -- the slow achievement of abilities for recursive mental symbolic simulations and self-other dialoguing as distinguishing characteristics of the human mind (Bråten 1973a, 1982b; 1988b). Asymmetric (instructed) learning and symmetric (collaborative) learning become operative (Tomasello et al. 1993). Perspectives are simulated by virtue of imagination or models of others' minds, and the child is able to attribute to others a belief which the child knows to be false.

Comparative and distinguishing characteristics: the human mind in culture
Comparing cultural learning in human children with learning in enculturated chimpanzees, Tomasello et al. (1993) finds that enculturated chimpanzees seem to exhibit the simpler form of imitative learning and demonstrate simple perspective-taking skills. Byrne (1994) has found evidence of imitative learning of complex skills of leaf-gathering among mountain gorillas, attained by the three-and-half year old, and Gómez (1994) examines attention contact in nonhuman primates as an indication of intersubjectivity. But no evidence of recursive symbolic and dialogical simulations at a more advanced level has been found. .

The social-emotional roots and the uniqueness of self-dialogical consciousness
We stress the importance of the social-emotional roots and nurture of the development of dialogical competence and consciousness. The emotions supported in affectionate engagements between adult and infants, and later, between peers, are, we conclude, essential to the regulation of normal brain development and to the development of the mind's dialogical and creative consciousness. Emotions are not merely responsible for the natural control of instinctive appetites and aversions that serve immediate survival of the body or give regularity to the baby's feeding and sleep-wake cycles. Emotions that generate the expression in the separate brains of mother and baby can come together in a confluence of affect that develops an organization of its own -- an organization moreover that is also reflected in the self-other organization of the developing mind.
The shifting between dialogical competence and consciousness manifests itself in intersubjective attunement at various levels -- from confluence of affect at the primary level to advanced self-other simulation and constructions at a more advanced level involving internal self-creative and dialogical circles of complementary self-other perspectives.

Primordial and advanced societal forms: Communitas, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft
The instances *1-*3 reflect one of the defining characteristics of the primordial societal form of Gemeinschaft (Tönnies 1912) or Communitas (Turner 1975), entailing I-You or We-companionship. This paves the road for advanced level construction of the cultural lifeworld that consists of contemporaries (Mitwelt), predecessors (Vorwelt) and successors (Folgewelt) conceived as types (Schütz 1932), that is, for the meaningfully constructed world that transcends the immediacy of the present.
1 Preliminary summary, prepared with Colwyn Trevarthen, of a talk at the symposium
2 Note added 1999 by S.B. in the present Sigma volume: Colwyn Trevarthen and I have been in disagreement about the 'theory-of-mind' implications indicated in the definition (my wording) of this level, and, consequently, whether or not it makes sense to designate this as 'tertiary' intersubjectivity. See, however, his chapter and my introduction and concluding chapter in the Cambridge University Press volume (Bråten (ed.). 1998: 1-46; 372-82), offering a synthesizing solution.