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Daniel Stern (The Interpersonal World of the Infant, 1985) attempts to guess the infant's subjective experiences as from birth. He resorts to a somewhat sophisticated speculative argumentation whereby he proposes four abstract stages of self development which would account for the whole of the infant's cognitive-emotional subjective development during the first 18 months of life. Thus, he proposes that the baby sets off to a fresh start in a sort of ambiguous "Sense of an Emergent Self", spanning the first 2-3 months of life, during which he would experience separate, unrelated experiences that have yet to be integrated into one embracing perspective. This last statement blatantly contradicts Dan Stern's own assertion that we come to life with a sense of self (subjective experiences which we experience as happening to us). Either the newborn knows he is a distinct being from the environment and recognizes others as others, i.e., as selves which interact with him or he lives in a world of confusion where experiences belong to nobody and take him nowhere.

Our research unambiguously shows that newborns relate to their mothers in a person-to-person basis, thus doing away with Stern's unsubstantiated first two stages of the baby's subjective experience: the "Emergent Self" and the "Core Self". These are already preprogrammed in the human newborn's CNS. What we have from the outset is nothing but intersubjective experiences and communication.


What do we mean by "Intersubjective Communication" or by "Intersubjectivity" generally? Since all communication is by definition intersubjective (between two or more subjects), where does the need to  label this particular stage of infant development "intersubjective". Simply because communication is achieved without the aid of language. Mother-infant communication during the first 15-18 months of life is speechless.
The newborn infant comes to life with the unimpaired faculty of teasing apart his mind from other people's minds. Consequently they realize that inner subjective experiences are potentially shareable with someone else; chiefly with mother. The University of Edinburgh researcher Colwyn Trevarthen was the first to notice it back  in 1977, and has unceasingly been going on looking into the issue ever since (Trevarthen, 1978, 1979, 1979 b, 1980, 1983, 1984, 1984 b, 1985, 1985 b, 1986, 1988, 1989, 1992, 1993, 1993 b).

Trevarthen (1977) writes: " My first scientific  experience with the specific communication function of young infants arose from comparison of activities of infants confronted with their mothers, who were simply asked to talk to their baby, with the activities of the same infants on occasions when a small toy was dangled in front of them. A few minutes in each condition, and two or three alternations between the conditions, were filmed once a week during the first six months of life of five infants."

"A pronounced difference in responses to objects and persons was seen when the infants were two months old. I noted a number of forms of action of body, hands and face that were associated with the infant's smile and vocalizations to the mother. Differences were also present in the manner of response of the different mothers and we gained a clear impression that each mother-infant pair was developing a different style of mutual activity. In spite of these differences, a general pattern of development in social behaviour was common to all five infants. I became convinced that an exceedingly complex innate mechanism foreshadowing the cooperative intelligence of adults, and more general than the mechanism of language, was already functioning in early infancy. The responses of the infants to persons were different in kind from those to objects, and they were pre-adaptive to reception and reply by persons.

"Examples of extremely close coordination of the infant's rudimentary vocalizations of pleasure or excitement with the baby talk of the mother are everywhere to be seen. Apparently, both partners are participating in a single rhythmical beat, as in music. Such timing of the acts of the infant to engage in the same rhythm as that of the mother's actions has been encountered in the majority of the detailed analyses we have made of fully developed communication. Thus the infant and mother generate a pattern of intention together. Condon and Sander (1974) have presented evidence that neonates synchronize climaxes of movement with speech of the mother, leaving the implication that the infant is entrained by a passive imitation to fit the mother's behaviour. We do not find synchrony as a rule, but by mutual regulation infant and mother appear to achieve a more complex cooperation which only occasionally results in synchrony of individual acts when mother and mother overlap to the same beat. Usually, their acts alternate or complement one another."

"I believe a correct description of this behaviour, to capture its full complexity, must be in terms of mutual intentionality and sharing of mental state. Either partner may initiate a "display" or "act of expression" and both act to sustain a sharing and exchange of initiatives. Both partners express complex purposive impulses in a form that is infectious for the other. It is difficult to perceive any content in the communication except for the exchange itself -it is essentially pathic."

Notice that intersubjective communication implies intersubjective relatedness at a preverbal stage of development and that this in turn entails sharing joint attention, sharing intentions and sharing affective states.

The issue of intersubjectivity forces us to reformulate our conceptions about human communication. Communication encompasses language, as one of the resources we resort to to get in touch with others, and not the other way round. The unspoken part of human communication is present and plays a large role long before the infant can speak. Such an inquiry is forced upon us when we admit that language may be a part of the far larger function of interpersonal communication and relatedness that grows in the child and accompanies us from the cradle to the grave.

Human beings understand one another intimately and at many levels. To analyse this ability of persons to act together and to share experience in harmony, we have first to view communication in relation to the private activities of conscious, purposeful action. All voluntary actions are performed in such a way that their effects can be anticipated by the actor and then adjusted within the perceived situation to meet the criteria set in advance. Interpersonal communication is controlled by feedback of information, as is all voluntary behaviour. But there is an essential difference between a person doing things in relation to the physical world and the control of communication between persons. Two persons can share control, each can predict what the other will know and do. Physical objects cannot predict intentions and they have no social relationships.
 For infants to share mental control with other persons they must have two skills. First, they must be able to exhibit to others at least the rudiments of individual consciousness and intentionality. This attribute of acting is called subjectivity. In order to communicate, infants must also be able to adapt or fit this subjective control to the subjectivity of others: they must also demonstrate intersubjectivity.

Acts that make subjective processes overt include the following: focussing attention on things, handling and exploring objects.

  Let us see what kind of empirical evidence infant-mother interactions forward to buttress the above statements.

The gesture of pointing and the act of following another's line of vision are among the first overt acts that permit inferences about the sharing of attention. Mothers point and infants point. Let us start with the mother's pointing. For her pointing to work, the infant must know to stop looking at the pointing hand itself and look in the direction it indicates, to the target. This kind of sharing starts rather late, at about 25 weeks of age and improves and enriches the scope of joint attention other than the mother herself (a situation Trevarthen (1978) has called Secondary Intersubjectivity) until the onset of language (15-18 months).



Stern, Daniel (1985). The Interpersonal World of the Infant. New York: Basic Books

Trevarthen, Colwyn (1977), Descriptive Analyses of Infant Communicative Behaviour. In: Studies in Mother-Infant Interaction, H.R. Schaffer (ed.), London: Academic Press.

Trevarthen, Colwyn (1978), Secondary Intersubjectivity: confidence, confiding and acts of meaning in the first year. In: Action Gesture and Symbol, The Emergence of Language, Andrew Lock (ed.), London: Academic Press.

Trevarthen, Colwyn (1979), Communication and Cooperation in Early Infancy: A Description of Primary Intersubjectivity. In: Before Speech: The Beginning of Interpersonal Communication, Margaret Bullowa (ed.), Cambridge: CUP.

Trevarthen, Colwyn (1979 b), Instincts for Human  Understanding and for Cultural Cooperation: Their Development in Infancy. In: Human Ethology: Claims and Limits of a New Discipline, M. von Cranach et. al., Maison des Sciences de l'Homme and Cambridge University Press.

Trevarthen, Colwyn (1980), The Foundations of Intersubjectivity: Development of Interpersonal and Cooperative Understanding in Infants. In: The Social Foundations of Language anf Thought, D. Olson (ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Trevarthen, Colwyn (1983), Interpersonal Abilities of Infants as Generators for Transmissions of Language and Culture. In: A. Oliverio and M. Zapella (eds.): The Behaviour of Human Infants. London: Plenum, 145-176

Trevarthen, Colwyn (1984), Emotions in Infancy: Regulators of Contact and Relationships with Persons. In: Klaus Scherer and Paul Ekman (eds.) Approaches to Emotion. Hillsdale: Erlbaum

Trevarthen, Colwyn (1984 b), Signs of Motivation for Speech in Infants, and the Nature of a Mother's Support for Development of Language. In: B. Lindblom and R. Zttterstrom (eds.) Precursors of Early Speech. New York: Stockton Press.

Trevarthen, Colwyn (1985), Emotional Regulation of Interactions Between Two-month-olds and Their Mothers. In: Tiffany Field and Nathan Fox (eds.) Social Perception in Infants. Norwood, New Jersey: Alex Publishing Corporation.

Trevarthen, Colwyn (1985 b), Facial Expressions in Mother-Infant Interaction. Human Neurobiology, 4: 21-32.

Trevarthen, Colwyn (1986), Form Significance and Psychological Potential of Hand Gestures of Infants. In: Jean-Luc Nespoulous et. al. The Biological Foundations of Gestures.  Erlbaum.

Trevarthen, Colwyn (1988), Development of Early Social Interacions and Affective Regulation of Brain Growth. In: Curt von Euler and Hans Forssberg (eds.) Neuobiology of Early Infant Behaviour. Stockholm: Karolinska Institute.

Trevarthen, Colwyn (1989), Origins and Directions for the  Concept of Infant Intersubjectivity. Newsletter of the Society for Research in Child Development.

Trevarthen, Colwyn (1992), An Infant's Motives for Speaking and Thinking in the Culture. In: A.H. Wold (ed.) The Dialogical Alternative. Oxford: OUP.

Trevarthen, Colwyn (1993),  Playing into Reality: Conversations with the Infant Communicator. The Journal of the Squiggle Foundation.

Trevarthen, Colwyn (1993 b), The Self Born in Intersubjectivity: The Psychology of an Infant Communicating. In: Ulric Neisser (ed.) The Perceived Self. Cambridge University Press.