The You-I event: on the genesis of self-awareness

Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 12 (4):769-790 (2013)
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Abstract

I present empirical evidence suggesting that an infant first becomes aware of herself as the focal center of a caregiver's attending. Yet that does not account for her awareness of herself as agent. To address this question, I bring in research on neonatal imitation, as well as studies demonstrating the existence of a neural system in which parts of the same brain areas are activated when observing another's action and when executing a similar one. Applying these findings, I consider gestural exchanges between infant and caregiver, such as reciprocal smiles and imitative vocalizations. Lacking self-awareness at first, the infant is unaware of her own agency. By returning her unwitting gesture, the caregiver singles out for her—thanks to neural matching—the gesture's kinesthesis. Moreover, the caregiver's smile, imitative vocalization, or other gesture is the form that focusing takes. The kinesthesis of the infant's gesture, in being singled out, is experienced by the infant as what the caregiver is focusing on. It is experienced as being within the focal center. In this way, the infant becomes aware of herself as a bodily entity acting toward the caregiver. Exchanges that involve matching are at first essential, I argue, in making the infant present to herself in action. Matching will cease to be necessary, but self-awareness continues to depend fundamentally on others until the acquisition of language, when the child becomes capable of talking to herself as if she were the caregiver

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