An aha! moment in infants reveals the origin of agency in humans

What gives us our purpose? According to science, it is that aha! moment when we realize that we can make changes in our environment, and it is infants who come across this realization first.
Rupendra Brahambhatt
An infant's foot tethered to the mobile.
An infant's foot tethered to the mobile.

Florida Atlantic University

A sense of purpose drives every action that humans do, and this ability of ours to act with purpose is called agency.

In psychology, agency is also defined as a person’s capability to act freely and control their actions. However, what’s interesting is that nobody knows how humans develop this sense of agency.

For years, scientists across the globe have been trying to find out the origin of agency. They believe this could help them solve many mysteries related to human behavior, consciousness, free will, and self-awareness.  

A new study from researchers at the Florida Atlantic University (FAU) attempts to uncover the origins of agency using human babies. Their study shows how humans and their environment act as a single entity to give rise to agency.

The birth of agency in human babies

Scientists believe that agency greatly impactsact on various aspects of human life, such as health, relationships, and career. For instance, a diabetes patient will only stay healthy if he takes his medicine on time and exercises control over their diet.   

A team of researchers who studied the role of agency on human health in 2018 noted, “The concept of agency has been linked to the motivation to act and the effectiveness to regulate behavior. We consider agency to be essential for understanding how people control their behaviors that have implications for health and well-being”  

According to the current study's authors, within the first month of birth, human infants begin to act with a sense of purpose. For example, even when two infants are kept in the same settings, they work and behave differently because of their different sense of purpose. 

Many past studies also suggest that infants have agency, and studying their behavior could reveal the origins of conscious awareness in humans. 

Considering such findings, the researchers performed an interesting experiment involving human babies and a crib-mounted baby mobile. They tethered infants’s feet to the mobile such that when the infants moved, the crib also moved.

Initially, the movement of the tethered feet and mobile were less correlated and coordinated, but then came an “aha! moment” when the infants realized they could move the mobile. From that point, both movements became highly coordinated. 

The study suggests that this is where the sense of agency originated in infants. They used advanced 3D motion capture technology, and an aha! Detector to decode the aha! Moment and the changes in the infants' movement linked to it.

“At some critical level of coordination, the infant recognizes its causal powers and transitions from spontaneous to intentional behavior. This aha! The moment is marked by an abrupt increase in infant movement rate,” said Scott Kelso, one of the study authors and a professor of psychology at FAU. 

Agency emerges from “organism-environment coupling”

An aha! moment in infants reveals the origin of agency in humans
A 3D representation (left) of the movements of the infant and the mobile (right).

The authors claim that scientists have been conducting baby-mobile experiments for the last 50 years, but previous research only focused on infant activity. Their study is the first to treat the infant and the mobile as one entity.

“In the 50 years of formal baby-mobile experiments, the FAU study is the first to measure the motion of the mobile directly and to use coordinative analysis to provide quantified observations of the emergence of human agency,” the study authors note.

The analysis of the aha! Moment takes into consideration both the movement and stillness. The researchers noticed that pauses taken by the infants when they realized agency also played a role in defining their interaction with the mobile.

“The babies in our study have revealed something really profound: that there is action amid inaction and inaction amid action,” Kelso said. 

The coordination dynamics of movement and stillness jointly constitute the unity of the baby’s conscious awareness – that they can make things happen in the world. Intentionally,” he added.

These insights could help scientists further understand the origin of conscious awareness in humans and other living beings.

The study is published in the journal PNAS.

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board