The Natural Ways of Musicality, Language, and Self Regulation in Infants

By Anderson, J. W. | Psychomusicology, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

The Natural Ways of Musicality, Language, and Self Regulation in Infants


Anderson, J. W., Psychomusicology


Infants have been seen as entering this world with a collection of reflexes, to serve them as tools of survival during the early days of life. However, ongoing research is redefining the cognitive and biological abilities of infants, even infants in utero or those born prematurely, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to understand how such pervasive capabilities as early musical engagement or language learning can be founded on simple stimulus-response reflex arcs. This paper discusses these new developments, underscoring the findings on how neonates and infants are capable of (a) aural discriminations far exceeding the requirements of the language and music of their culture, and (b) accomplishments indicative of wondrous musical perceptiveness and linguistic competence. Theoretically, childhood capabilities are increasingly seen as a dynamically regulated living system capable of improvising extensive learning in the apparent absence of any intention to learn.

Undeniably, humans are born with well-developed capabilities that serve the infant in both survival and development. For instance, swallowing and sucking enable the infant to feed almost immediately. These capabilities, or reflexes, arc as natural to the newborn as breathing, and as essential as breathing for subsequent growth in the new environment. However, viewing newborn abilities as discrete reflexes is problematic. Too often "our psychological tradition ... has assumed that the mind of an infant is incoherent" (Trevarthen, 1993, p. 121), but infants demonstrate more than mere reflexive responses. Their actions are much more integrated, much more inherently in touch with the demands of survival, and much more intimately in tune with real-world conditions. Infants engage in action, demand attention from adults, and cope with consequences. For these and other analogous reasons, Dewey ( 1896) viewed the term reflex as capturing but the tip of the iceberg. This reflex arc theory, he stated, "gives us one disjointed part of a process as if it were the whole. It gives us literally an arc, instead of the circuit; and not giving us the circuit of which it is an arc, does not enable us to place, to center, the arc" (p. 370).

A salient feature of reflexive responses is the lack of any role played by effort in them. In cognitive science, the absence of effort is equated with automaticity. Yet, the term automaticity is no less problematic. For many researchers, aulomaticity is a learned capacity. It starts with effort-intensive rehearsal and builds up in slow increments with extensive consistent practice (Schneider&Shiffrin, 1977; Shiffrin & Schneider, 1977). Such effort-laden rehearsal and practice is surely absent in the newborn. Therefore, this understand ing of automaticity is difficult to apply meaningfully to the functioning of infant reflexes. According to Iran-Ncjad (1990), something else must be responsible for the vast amount of learning that the early days of life afford the new-born child. One way to view this problem is to distinguish between biofunctional automaticity, characteristic of the natural functioning of the biological subsystems of the body and the brain, and structural automaticity, in which incremental structures are formed slowly with extensive practice to run on automatic pilot, so to speak (Iran-Nejad, 1986; Shuell, 1990).

Though referring to children older than those considered here, Iran-Nejad (1990) described structural and biofunctional automaticity as distinct types oflearning. Each plays a very different role in learning. Some learners practice learning as internalizing external knowledge and are motivated by the intention to internalize. This type oflearning readily can be explained by the rehearsal clement of structural automaticity. For infants it seems that functioning authentically in the real world is the basis oflearning. At this age there is no conscious intent to intcrnali/eoreven to learn. The functional automaticity of natural interest seems to be the basis for learning in infants, who "react with surprise to events that they experience as violating the laws of physics, and who respond appropriately to different facial expressions. …

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