baby with mirrorAre babies solipsists? Ali, Spence and Bremner at Goldsmiths say their recent research suggests that they are “tactile solipsists”.

To be honest that seems a little bit of a stretch from the actual research. In essence this tested how good babies were at identifying the location of a tactile stimulus. The researchers spent their time tickling babies and seeing whether the babies looked in the direction of the tickle or not (the life of science is tough, but somebody’s got to do it). Perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, the babies were in general pretty good at this. In fact the youngest ones were less likely to be confused by crossing their legs before tickling their feet, something that reduced the older ones’ success rate to chance levels, and in fact impairs the performance of adults too.

The reason for this is taken to be that long experience leads us to assume a stimulus to our right hand will match an event in the right visual field, and so on. After the correlations are well established the brain basically stops bothering to check and is then liable to be confused when the right hand (or foot) is actually on the left, or vice versa.

This reminded me a bit of something I noticed with my own daughters: when they were very small their fingers all worked independently and were often splayed out, with single fingers moving quite independently; but in due course they seemed to learn that not much is achieved in most circumstances by using the four digits separately and that you might as well use them in concert by default to help with grasping, as most of us mostly do except when using a keyboard.

Very young babies haven’t had time to learn any of this and so are not confused by laterally inconsistent messages. The Goldsmiths’ team read this as meaning that they are in essence just aware of their own bodies, not aware of them in relation to the world. It could be so, but I’m not sure it’s the only interpretation. Perhaps it’s just not that complex.

There are other reasons to think that babies are sort of solipsistic. There’s some suggestive evidence these days that babies are conscious of their surroundings earlier than we once thought, but until recently it’s been thought that self-awareness didn’t dawn until around fifteen months, with younger babies unaware of any separation between themselves and the world. This was partly based on the popular mirror test, where a mark is covertly put on the subject’s face. When shown themselves in a mirror, some touch the mark; this is taken to show awareness that the reflection is them, and hence a clear sign of self awareness. The test has been used to indicate that such self-awareness is mainly a human thing, though also present in some apes, elephants, and so on.

The interpretation of the mirror test always seemed dubious to me. Failure to touch your own face might not mean you’ve failed to recognise yourself; contrariwise, you might think the reflection was someone else but still be motivated to check your own face to see whether you too had a mark. If people out there are getting marked, wouldn’t you want to check?

Sure enough about five years ago evidence emerged that the mirror test is in fact very much affected by cultural factors and that many human beings outside the western world react quite differently to a mirror. It’s not all that surprising that if you’ve seen people use mirrors to put on make-up (or shave) regularly your reactions to one might be affected.  If we were to rely on the mirror test, it seems many Kenyan six-year-olds would be deemed unaware of their own existence.

Of course the question is in one sense absurd: to be any kind of solipsist is, strictly speaking, to hold an explicit philosophical position which requires quite advanced linguistic and conceptual apparatus which small infants certainly don’t have. For the question to be meaningful we have to have a clear view about what kinds of beliefs babies can be said to hold. I don’t doubt that hold some inexplicit ones, and that we go on holding beliefs in the same way alongside others at many different levels. If we reach out to catch a ball we can in some sense be said to hold the belief that it is following a certain path, although we may not have entertained any conscious thoughts on the matter. At the other end of the spectrum, where we solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, the belief has been formulated with careful specificity and we have (one hopes) deliberated inwardly at the most abstract levels of thought about the meaning of the oath. The complex and many-layered ways in which we can believe things have yet to be adequately clarified I think; a huge project and since introspection is apparently the only way to tackle it, a daunting one.

For me the only certain moral to be drawn from all the baby-tickling is one which philosophers might recognise: the process of learning about the world is at root a matter of entering into worse and grander confusions.


  1. 1. Sci says:

    it’s funny to me with all that we don’t know about things like autoimmune diseases, genetics, and other aspects of biology that have nothing to do with the Hard Problem people seem so quick to think we’re anywhere close to making claims like babies being philosophical adherents of solipsism.

  2. 2. Cognicious says:

    Sci, I find such claims funny (or, really, annoying) for a different reason. I wish people who don’t remember anything about being a baby would stop speculating about babies’ cognition.

    One problem with the mirror test is that some babies, but not all, even in the same culture, have been shown a mirror and taught what it is and perhaps have played with one. So subjects’ familiarity with the concept of literal self-image will vary at early ages.

  3. 3. Sci says:

    Oh, that’s true as well. It seems some, if not a good deal, of research is with isolated (toy?) examples divorced from actual life.

    Yet one only has to look at the number of approved drugs where the actual mechanism is unknown to realize how far we need to go to understand the aspects of the physical that have nothing to do with the Hard Problem, Intentionality, etc.

    As a friend who does clinical research in oncology told me, the very fact we depend on statistics so much for medical research is proof we are still mired in ignorance as to the machinery of our bodies. Which is why I don’t see us even solving the easy part of the Hard Problem (the exact mechanisms correlated with subjective experience) for quite some time, though of course science might surprise us.

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