Underground exploration reveals the emergence of „emotional awareness”.

A recent study used children to investigate the origins of purposeful action, showing that agency emerges from the relationship between an organism and its environment. Using the infant-mobile experiment, when infants recognize their ability to cause movement on a mobile through their movement, they shift from voluntary to intentional behavior, marking the „birth of agency.”

Research on children provides the first quantified observations showing the 'expression’ of agency or intention in humans.

Living things act with purpose. But where does purpose come from? How do humans understand their relationship to the world and realize their potential to effect change? These fundamental questions of agency — acting with purpose — have troubled some of the greatest minds in history, including Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Erwin Schrödinger, and Niels Bohr.

New research from Florida Atlantic University reveals exciting insights into the origins of agency using an unusual and often untapped source – human babies. As goal-directed action emerges in the first months of human life, the FAU research team used young children as a testing ground to understand how spontaneous movement becomes purposeful action.

For the study, children began the experiment as disengaged observers. However, when the researchers attached one of the babies’ legs to a cradle-mounted baby mobile, they found that the babies could move the mobile. To capture a lightning-in-a-bottle moment of perception, the researchers measured infant and mobile movement in 3D space using sophisticated motion capture technology to detect dynamic and integrative features that mark the „birth of agency.”

The birth of agency

When a child’s foot is attached to a mobile, each leg movement causes the mobile to move. Positive feedback reinforces the cause-and-effect relationship between the child and mobile movement. Credit: Florida Atlantic University

Recent findings, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provide a solution to this age-old puzzle. Analyzes of experiments on human infants and dynamic modeling suggest that agency emerges from an integrative relationship between organism (infant) and environment (mobile). But how exactly does this happen?

When a child’s foot is attached to a mobile, each leg movement causes the mobile to move. It was assumed that the more the mobile moves, the more the child is motivated to move, and produces more mobile movement.

„Positive feedback amplifies the cause-and-effect relationship between infant and mobile movement,” says J.A. said Scott Kelso, Ph.D., senior author and Distinguished Scholar in Science at the Glenwood and Martha Creech Center for Complex Systems and Brain Sciences. FAU’s Charles E. in the Schmidt College of Science. „At some critical integration stage, the infant recognizes its causal powers and transitions from voluntary to intentional behavior. This Aha! is marked by a sudden increase in the infant’s rate of movement.”

3D reconstruction and representation of the positions of the child's limbs

3D reconstruction/representation of the child’s limb positions (red = left side; green = right side; yellow/orange = center; and mobile position = blue). The image on the right depicts tiny silver spheres placed at different points on the baby’s skin. Special cameras send out infrared light, which bounces off the spheres and is reflected back to the cameras. The system takes that reflective infrared information from all the cameras and finds the exact location of each sphere. Credit: Florida Atlantic University

Alyssa Sloan, Ph.D., lead author and postdoctoral research scientist in FAU’s Center for Complex Systems and Brain Sciences, said a dose of „Wow!” A tool to detect sudden increases in movement rate in infants related to sudden infant discovery.

Sloan’s technique demonstrated that the „birth” of agency can be measured as a „eureka-like” shape-shifting phase shift within a dynamic system that spans the child, brain, and environment. As the infant discovers its functional relationship with the mobile, the system switches from a state in which both movements of the mobile and the attached limb are highly coordinated to less correlated.

Although the basic design of the test has been used in developmental research since the late 1960s, related research has traditionally focused only on children’s activities that treat the infant and the environment as separate entities. In 50 years of systematic infant-mobile experiments, the FAU study is the first to directly measure a mobile’s movement and to use coordinate analysis to provide quantitative observations of the emergence of human agency.

The new approach used in this study frames agency as a property that emerges from the functional coupling of organism and environment. Coordination Dynamics – Through the eyes of Kelso and colleagues’ theory, researchers took a deep dive into infant-mobile interactions, how complex organisms are coordinated (from cells to communities) and how function and order emerge.


When a child’s foot is attached to a mobile, each leg movement causes the mobile to move. Positive feedback reinforces the cause-and-effect relationship between the child and mobile movement. At some critical level of integration, the child recognizes its causal powers and shifts from spontaneous to intentional behavior. This Aha! The baby is marked by a sudden increase in movement rate. Credit: Florida Atlantic University

Although infants are expected to discover their control over the mobile through their integrated activity with the mobile, the patterns in which the infant pauses are significant.

„Our findings demonstrate that children’s active movements are not the only thing that matters,” said Nancy Jones, Ph.D., professor in FAU’s Department of Psychology and director of the FAU WAVES Laboratory.

A thorough integrative analysis of the child’s movement, mobile movement and their interrelationship, the emergence of agency is a discontinuous self-organizing process, the meaning of which is found in both movement and stillness.

„The children in our study revealed something very profound: action in the midst of inactivity, and inaction in the midst of action. Both provide meaningful information for the child to explore the world and its place,” Kelso said. – They can do things in the world. On purpose.”

In the FAU study, infants approach functional attachment to the mobile in different ways. Distinct clusters were found in the timing and magnitude of children’s bursts of activity, indicating the existence of behavioral phenotypes (observable characteristics) of agent discovery—and kinematics provides a way to identify them. This novel phenotyping method may be useful for preventive care and early treatment of children at risk.

Note: „From Movement and Stillness to Meaning: Signatures of Coordination Dynamics Reveal Infant Agency” by Alyssa D. Sloan, Nancy Aaron Jones and JA Scott Kelso, 18 Sept. 2023, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2306732120

This research was supported by the FAU Foundation and the National Institute of Mental Health (MH-080838). National Institutes of Health.

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