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Others in Mind: Social Origins of Self-Consciousness

Burtchen, Nina MD

Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics: April 2011 - Volume 32 - Issue 3 - p 263
doi: 10.1097/DBP.0b013e318218d7f9
Book Review

Department of Pediatrics; NYU School of Medicine; New York, NY

by Philippe Rochat, New York, NY, Cambridge University Press, 2009, 264 pp, Paperback, $25.99

Developing the capacity for self-regulation is thought to be a central achievement of early childhood. But how do we conceptualize the self of a young child? Are infants born conscious of themselves? How does self-consciousness develop over the first years of life? These questions touch upon age-old philosophical discussions, and it takes a scientist of Rochat's caliber to write about them in a language that is entertaining to read for laypeople and experts alike. His book “Others in Mind” is solidly grounded in the most recent results of infant research, a field Rochat himself has been a major contributor for many years, resulting, amongst others, in his book “The Infant's world” (Harvard University Press, 2001), which continues to be standard reading for all interested in the development of children.

Born and raised in Geneva, Rochat has been trained by Piaget, but his theories go beyond a merely cognitive approach to children's development. Extensive research in culturally and socioeconomically highly contrasted populations gives Rochat a unique perspective on topics such as the development of self-consciousness and moral sense in children. When he repeated one of the classical self-recognition experiments (“rouge task”) in Kenya, for example, he noticed that Kenyan children, when looking in a mirror, identify a red dot (or sticker) that the experimenter has placed on their forehead as something not belonging to their body. But, in contrast to their Western peers, they do not immediately remove it. Could it be that their more authoritarian upbringing makes them hesitant to remove what was put in place by an adult authority figure, although it disturbs their previously formed self-image?

To better understand this phenomenon, Rochat designed a second experiment in which everybody else in the room (including the parents and the experimenter) wears a red dot on their foreheads as well. In this setting, across cultures, significantly fewer children attempt to remove their “stigma,” likely because they feel less socially “stigmatized” by it. Observations like this led Rochat to the hypothesis that children do not just see themselves in the mirror but see their “public” selves, their selves as they might be represented in the minds of others. This is the central idea of this book. Self-consciousness originates in social context; it is an ongoing negotiation between the first- and the third-person perspective. Rochat calls this “coconsciousness” the characteristic trait of our species. Because of our innate need to belong and fear of being rejected, all our self-reflections inevitably are self-evaluations in relation to others. We always have others in mind.

Why do pediatricians need to know about this? Understanding the mind of others is a difficult task, especially when the other does not have verbal language yet. Young parents are facing this particular challenge on a daily basis, and false parental attributions to infant mental states are a significant risk factor for impaired parent-child relationships and thus infant development. Counseling parents about the internal world of their children is at the very core of a pediatrician's practice. Philippe Rochat's book helps with this important task by giving us an affluence of arguments to advocate for our patients. He clearly states the limitations of a theory of mind that views children as “little scientists” rather than as human beings who are busy in constant negotiations of their selves in each social encounter, just as we are as adults. Every behavior thus is meaningful in its social context, and it is meaningful at any age, as self-consciousness does not emerge all of a sudden but likely starts to develop even before we are born.

In the first part of his book, Rochat describes in detail how the different developmental stages correlate with different states of mind and how they all eventually coalesce into the complexity of adult mental life. In the second part, he shows how these states of mind relate to fundamental human experiences like shame, pride, guilt, empathy, and contempt (you will be surprised how he links those 5 together). Rochat talks about highly complex theories with such ease that it feels like being charmed into a late dinner conversation rather than listening to an academic lecture. By the end of that dinner, one's head is buzzing with information. But after a good night's sleep, one wakes up in the morning with a new, enriched view of the world, aware of having others in mind and grateful that Philippe Rochat is one of them.

Nina Burtchen, MD

Department of Pediatrics

NYU School of Medicine

New York, NY

© 2011 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.