Academic journal article Pre- and Peri-natal Psychology Journal

The Role of Mental Representations in Predicting Mother-Infant Interaction

Academic journal article Pre- and Peri-natal Psychology Journal

The Role of Mental Representations in Predicting Mother-Infant Interaction

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: Research has revealed that as early as the neonatal period infants possess innate capacities such as categorization and amodal perception that help them formulate representations of the "self and "other." This paper posits that in order to formulate these representations, the infant also requires exposure to a motivational environment that provides insight into the relationships between people. "Previewing," a process deriving from the interaction between caregiver and infant, contributes to our understanding of how the caregiver's predictions are transferred to the infant, fostering the infant's achievement of a coherent sense of self and an adaptive social interaction with the caregiver.


The process by which individuals formulate representations of the self, of others and of the external world of objects has long intrigued developmental psychologists. Describing this process requires explaining how representations change during the course of development from infancy to adulthood. No such description would be complete, however, without an evaluation of the roles played by the infant and caregiver during early life (Campos, Campos and Barrett, 1989; Trad, 1992).

Recent research has disclosed that the infant possesses two innate capacities that foster the construction of representations: amodal perception and categorization skills (Medin, 1983; Resnick and Kagan, 1983). Amodal perception, the ability to transfer information between sensory systems (e.g., to recognize visually a toy music box previously heard, but never before seen), helps the infant integrate the discrete elements of a stimulus into a single composite (Stern, 1985). Categorization, the identification of similar traits among diverse stimuli or within a given relationship, lays the foundation for further learning (Hayne, Rovee-Collier and Perris, 1987). In combination, amodal perception and categorization facilitate the infant's development of increasingly complex representations (Stern, 1989).

Nevertheless, this paper contends that the infant needs more than these constitutional skills to achieve representations that span the full diversity of human experience. Significantly, the infant should also be exposed to the interpersonal behaviors of others, particularly the caregiver. Gaining familiarity with the caregiver enables the infant to acquire insight into his/her own perceptions, as well as to understand the relationship between the perceptions of the self and the perceptions of others (Pipp, Fischer and Jennings, 1987; Behrends and Blatt, 1985).

The following discussion focuses on a developmental process that appears to foster the infant's representations of the self and others, especially the caregiver. This developmental process, referred to as previewing (Trad, 1990a), may help us understand how the infant comes to achieve a coherent sense of self, of others and of external objects. Previewing is a process that derives from the interaction between caregiver and infant during the first years of life. The process begins when the caregiver envisions imminent developmental trends and maturational skills that the infant will soon exhibit. The caregiver then uses these predictions to design behaviors that will acquaint the infant with the changes new skills will precipitate in the dyadic relationship. When engaging in these behaviors with the caregiver, the infant experiences a sense of organization that guides his/her development (Trad, 1992).

The previewing process may also offer insight about some of the issues of infant development that have not been fully addressed before. As Bretherton (1985) has noted, research concerning mothers and infants has centered on the perceptions of the attached party (the infant), rather than of the attachment figure (the caregiver). Studying the previewing process may shed further light upon the caregiver's contribution to the dyadic relationship. Previewing may also offer information about the infant's skill for organizing experiences. …

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