Intersubjectivity is the process in which mental activity -- including conscious awareness, motives and intentions, cognitions, and emotions -- is transferred between minds. ANIMAL COMMUNICATION and cooperative social life require intersubjective signaling (Marler, Evans, and Hauser 1992). Individuals must perceive and selectively respond to the motives, interests, and emotions behind perceived movement in bodies of other animals, especially in conspecifics. Such communication has attained a new level of complexity in human communities, with their consciousness of collectively discovered cultural meanings.

Human intersubectivity manifests itself as an immediate sympathetic awareness of feelings and conscious, purposeful intelligence in others. It is transmitted by body movements (especially of face, vocal tract, and hands) that are adapted to give instantaneous visual, auditory, or tactile information about purposes, interests, and emotions and symbolic ideas active in subjects' minds. On it depends cultural learning, and the creation of a "social reality," of conventional beliefs, languages, rituals, and technologies. Education of children is rooted in preverbal, mimetic intersubjectivity. Human linguistic dialogue also rests on  intersubjective awareness, as do the phenomena of "self-awareness" in society. A psychology of intersubjectivity concerns itself with analysis of this innate capacity for intimate and efficient intermental coupling, and attempts to assess what must be learned, through imitation or instruction, to advance intelligent cooperation.

Research on communication with infants and young children proves the existence in the developing human brain of emotional and cognitive regulators for companionship in thought and purposeful action (Aitken and Trevarthen 1997). The theory of innate intersubjectivity (Trevarthen 1998), like the theory of the virtual other (Braten 1988), invites new concepts of language and thinking, as well as of music and all temporal arts, and it requires deep examination of cognitive processing models of CONSCIOUSNESS.

Infants demonstrate that they perceive persons as essentially different "objects" from anything nonliving and nonhuman (Legerstee 1992; Trevarthen 1998). They are acutely sensitive to time patterns in human movement (manifestations of TIME IN THE MIND), and can react in synchrony, or with complementary "attunement" of motives and feelings (Stern 1985, 1993; Trevarthen, Kokkinaki, and Fiamenghi 1998). Dynamic forms of vocal, facial, and gestural emotional expression are recognized and employed in interactions with other persons from birth, before intentional use of objects is effective. Scientific research into the earliest orientations, preferences, and intentional actions of newborns when they encounter evidence of a person, and their capacities for IMITATION, prove that the newborn human is ready for, and needs, mutually regulated intersubjective transactions (Kugiumutzakis 1998). Infants do not acquire intersubjective powers in "pseudo dialogues" by being treated "as if" they wish to express intentions, thoughts, and feelings (Kaye 1982), but they do find satisfying communication only with partners who accept that they have such powers, because such acceptance releases intuitive patterns of "parenting" behavior that infants can be aware of, and with which they can enter into dialogue (Papouek and Papouek 1987). Infants' emotional well-being depends on a mutual regulation of consciousness with affectionate companions (Tronick and Weinberg 1997). Events in the infant-adult "dynamic system" (Fogel and Thelen 1987) are constrained by intrinsic human psychological motives on both sides (Aitken and Trevarthen 1997). These intrinsic constraints are psychogenic adaptations for cultural learning.

Human knowledge begins in exchange and combination of purposes between the young child and more experienced companions -- in "joint attention" (Tomasello 1988). A "primary intersubjectivity" is active, in "protoconversational" play, soon after birth (Bateson 1975; Trevarthen 1979), and this develops by the end of the first year into "secondary intersubjectivity" -- sympathetic intention toward shared environmental AFFORDANCES and objects of purposeful action (Trevarthen and Hubley 1978). Before they possess any verbalizable THEORY OF MIND, children share purposes and their consequences through direct other-awareness of persons' interests and moods (Reddy et al. 1997). Acquired beliefs and concepts of a young child are redescriptions of narrativelike patterns of intention and consciousness that can be shared, without verbal or rational analysis, in a familiar "common sense" world. Narrative expression by rhythmic posturing and gesturing with prosodic or melodic vocalisation, or "mimesis," may have been a step in the prelinguistic evolution of hominid communication and cognition (Donald 1991). Pretense and socially demonstrated METACOGNITION is natural in infant play, and imitation of pretend actions and attitudes is essential in the development of imaginative representational play in toddlers of modern Homo sapiens.

Language and other symbolic conventions enrich intersubjectivity, generating and storing limitless common meaning and strategies of thought, but they do not constitute the basis for interpersonal awareness. Rather, as Wittgenstein perceived, the reverse is the case -- all language develops from experience negotiated, with emotion, in intersubjectivity, whatever innate predispositions there may be to acquire language qua language (see PRAGMATICS). The acquisition of syntax is derived from expressive sequences that are perceived as emotional narratives in game rituals (Bruner 1983). Word meaning is acquired by imitation in narrative exchanges modulated by dynamic affects and expressions of interest, intention, and feeling deployed by the child and companions in a familiar, common world (Locke 1993; see WORD MEANING, ACQUISITION OF).

Intersubjective sympathy is shown when persons synchronize or alternate their motor impulses, demonstrating "resonance" of motives that have matching temporospatial dimensions (rhythms and morphology or "embodiment") in all individuals, and that, consequently, can be perceived by one to forecast the other's acts and their perceptual consequences (Trevarthen 1998). Psychophysical and physiological research proves that cognitive processes of perceptual information uptake, thoughts, and memories are organized by intrinsically generated "motor images" or "dynamic forms" (Jeannerod 1994). The same motor forms are demonstrated in communication. The discovery of "mirror neurons" in the ventral premotor cortex of monkeys, which discharge both when the monkey grasps or manipulates something and when the human experimenter makes similar manipulations, indicates how "self" and "other," or observer and actor, can be matched, and it helps explain how the essential intersubjective neural mechanisms of communication by language may have evolved (Rizzolatti and Arbib 1998). Conscious monitoring of intersubjective motives is asymmetric; in normal circumstances we are more aware of others' feelings and intentions than of our own inner states. However, we do not have to be in the presence of others to have them in mind. As Adam Smith explained, the moral sense, built around representations of an innate sympathy, takes the form of an "other-awareness" or "conscience." In his words, "When I endeavour to examine my own conduct, I divide myself, as it were, into two persons. The first is the spectator . . . the second is the agent, the person whom I properly call myself, and of whose conduct, under the character of the spectator, I was endeavouring to form an opinion." (Smith 1759: 113, 6).

The aptitude of human minds for imitation does not mean, as social learning theory asserts, that a SELF-KNOWLEDGE is possible only as a result of learning how others see us, and how to talk about oneself. Impulses of purpose and interest, with the emotions that evaluate their prospects and urgency, have, as motives, similar status for the self as for others, and independently of culture. This consequence of immediate, innate intersubjective sympathy is overlooked by empiricists, including theorists of ECOLOGICAL PSYCHOLOGY, in their accounts of how perceptual information is taken up by behaving subjects, individually. There is a historical reason for the idea of the separate self.

The Western philosophical tradition (exemplified by RENÉDESCARTES and IMMANUEL KANT) generally assumes that human minds are inherently separate in their purposes and experiences, seeking rational clarity, autonomous skills, and self-betterment. Subjects take in information for consciousness of reality or truth, become aware of other people as objects that have particular properties and affordances. They construct an awareness of the SELF in society, but remain single subjectivities. Interpersonal life and collective understanding result from individuals communicating thoughts in language, the grammar of which is derived from innate rational processes. The rational individual has both self-serving emotions and instinctive "biological" reactions to others, which must be regulated by conventional rules of socially acceptable behavior. With good management of education and social government, individuals learn how to negotiate with social partners and converge in awareness of transcendental universals in their individual consciousness and purposes, to their mutual benefit. We will call this view of intelligent and civilized cooperation as an artificial acquisition the "extrinsic intersubjectivity" or "subjective first" position. Psychology and cognitive science analyze awareness, thinking, learning, and skill in action from this position, which must find immediate intersubjectivity difficult to explain.

A different conception of human consciousness, exhibiting affinity with some philosophies of religious experience, perceives interpersonal awareness, cooperative action in society, and cultural learning as manifestations of innate motives for sympathy in purposes, interests, and feelings -- that is, that a human mind is equipped with needs for dialogic, intermental engagement with other similar minds (Jopling 1993). Notions of moral obligation are conceived as fundamental to the growth of consciousness of meaning in every human being. Language is neither just a learned skill, nor the product of an instinct for generating grammatical structures to model subjective agency and to categorize awareness of objects. It emerges as an extension of the natural growth of a sympathy in purposes and experiences that is already clearly demonstrated in the mimetic narratives of an infant's play in reciprocal attention with an affectionate companion. We will call this view of how human cooperative awareness arises the "intrinsic intersubjectivity" or "intersubjective first" position .

Psychoanalysis, though interested in rational representations of self and others by introjection and projection, or transference and countertransference, seeks intersubjective explanations for psychopathology, and for the relation of disorders in child development to the acquisition of an  emotionally communicated self-awareness (Stern 1985). Theories of childhood AUTISM, a challenging but highly instructive pathology, necessarily confront hypotheses concerning how engagement with mind states is normally possible between individuals from infancy (Hobson 1993).

As the political offspring of the subjective first position, individualism sees a society as animated by stressful en-counters between competitors who survive and prosper by Machiavellian deceit. Positive relationships or attachments merely serve to build alliances that increase chances of success for their members in competition with the rest of the group. Like the misnamed "social Darwinism," SOCIOBIOLOGY is founded on the tacit belief that there is no natural ALTRUISM, no capacity to link purposes for collective goals that are valued because they are products of intuitive sympathy and cooperative awareness. Closer study of animal behaviors shows contrary evidence (De Waal 1996). The evidence that infants learn by emotional referencing to evaluate experiences through attunement with motives of familiar companions, for whom they have, and from whom they receive, affectionate regard, proves that it is the sense of individuality in society that is the derived state of mind, developed in contrast to more fundamental intersubjective needs and obligations.

Additional links

-- Colwyn Trevarthen


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De Waal, F. (1996). Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Human and Other Animals. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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Kaye, K. (1982). The Mental and Social Life of Babies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kugiumutzakis, G. (1998). Neonatal imitation in the intersubjective companion space. In S. Bråten, Ed., Intersubjective Communication and Emotion in Early Ontogeny. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Rizzolatti, A., and M. A. Arbib. (1998). Language within our grasp. Trends in the Neurosciences 21:188-194.

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Trevarthen, C. (1998). The concept and foundations of infant intersubjectivity. In S. Bråten, Ed., Intersubjective Communication and Emotion in Early Ontogeny. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 15-46.

Trevarthen, C., and P. Hubley. (1978). Secondary intersubjectivity: confidence, confiding and acts of meaning in the first year. In A. Lock, Ed., Action, Gesture and Symbol. London: Academic Press, pp. 183-229.

Trevarthen, C., T. Kokkinaki, and G. A. Fiamenghi Jr. (1998). What infants' imitations communicate: With mothers, with fathers and with peers. In J. Nadel and G. Butterworth, Eds., Imitation in Infancy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tronick, E. Z., and M. K. Weinberg. (1997). Depressed mothers and infants: failure to form dyadic states of consciousness. In L. Murray and P. J. Cooper, Eds., Postpartum Depression and Child Development. New York: Guilford Press, pp. 54-81.

Further Readings

Bakhtine, M. M. (1981). The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Barnes, B. (1995). The Elements of Social Theory. London: UCL Press.

Beebe, B., J. Jaffe, S. Feldstein, K. Mays, and D. Alson. (1985). Inter-personal timing: the application of an adult dialogue model to mother-infant vocal and kinesic interactions. In F. M. Field and N. A. Fox, Eds., Social Perception in Infants. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 217-248.

Bretherton, I., S. McNew, and M. Beeghley-Smith. (1981). Early person knowledge as expressed in gestural and verbal communication: when do infants acquire "theory of mind"? In M. E. Lamb and L. R. Sherrod, Eds., Infant Social Cognition. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Bruner, J. S. (1996). The Culture of Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Donaldson, M. (1978). Children's Minds. Glasgow: Fontana/Collins.

Halliday, M. A. K. (1975). Learning How to Mean: Explorations in the Development of Language. London: Edward Arnold.

Hondereich, T., Ed. (1995). The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Leslie, A. (1987). Pretense and representation: the origins of "theory of mind." Psychological Review 94:412-426.

Meltzoff, A. N. (1985). The roots of social and cognitive development: models of man's original nature. In T. M. Field and N. A. Fox, Eds., Social Perception in Infants. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, pp. 1-30.

Nadel, J., and A. Pezé. (1993). Immediate imitation as a basis for primary communication in toddlers and autistic children. In J. Nadel and L. Camioni, Eds., New Perspectives in Early Communicative Development. London: Routledge, 139-156.

Neisser, U. (1993). The self perceived. In U. Neisser, Ed., The Perceived Self: Ecological and Interpersonal Sources of Self-Knowledge. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 3-21.

Rogoff, B. (1990). Apprenticeship in Thinking: Cognitive Development in Social Context. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ryan, J. (1974). Early language development: towards a communicational analysis. In M. P. M. Richards, Ed., The Integration of a Child into a Social World. London: Cambridge University Press, pp. 185-213.

Schore, A. (1994). Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self: The Neurobiology of Emotional Development. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Searle, J. R. (1995). The Construction of Social Reality. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Sluga, H. (1996). Ludwig Wittgenstein: life and work. An introduction. In H. Sluga and D. G. Stern, Eds., The Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tomasello, M., A. C. Kruger, and H. H. Ratner. (1993). Cultural learning. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 16(3):495-552.

Trehub, S. E., L. J. Trainor, and A. M. Unyk. (1993). Music and speech processing in the first year of life. Advances in Child Development and Behaviour 24:1-35.

Trevarthen, C. (1980). The foundations of intersubjectivity: development of interpersonal and cooperative understanding of infants. In D. Olson, Ed., The Social Foundations of Language and Thought: Essays in Honor of J. S. Bruner. New York: W. W. Norton, pp. 316-342.

Trevarthen, C. (1986). Development of intersubjective motor control in infants. In M. G. Wade and H. T. A. Whiting, Eds., Motor Development in Children: Aspects of Coordination and Control. Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhof, pp. 209-261.

Trevarthen, C. (1993). The self born in intersubjectivity: the psychology of an infant communicating. In U. Neisser, Ed., The Perceived Self: Ecological and Interpersonal Sources of Self-Knowledge. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 121-173.

Trevarthen, C. (1994). Infant semiosis. In W. Noth, Ed., Origins of Semiosis. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 219-252.

Trevarthen, C. (1995). Contracts of mutual understanding: negotiating meaning and moral sentiments with infants. In P. Wohlmuth, Ed., The Crisis of Text: Issues in the Constitution of Authority. San Diego: University of San Diego School of Law, Journal of Contemporary Legal Issues, Spring 1995, vol. 6:373-407 .