728 x 90
728 x 90

Why Children Think They Are Invisible when Covering Their Eyes

Why Children Think They Are Invisible when Covering Their Eyes

Dr. James Russell and a research team at the University of Cambridge recently published work on young children’s conception of personal visibility, which furthers the understanding of cognitive development and of our emerging sense of self.

The research involved children three to four years of age. Researchers placed an eye mask on each of the children and asked them if they could be seen when wearing it. They then asked each child if an adult who was wearing a similar mask could be seen. The majority of the children involved in the study believed they were not visible when wearing the mask. Most also believed that the adult wearing the eye mask was also hidden.

Additional tests revealed a unique layer of complexity, demonstrating that although the children thought they were invisible when their eyes were covered, they still believed that their head and body were able to be seen.

The research team concluded by process of elimination that the factor that makes children believe they are visible is eye contact with another person.

“… it would seem that children apply the principle of joint attention to the self and assume that for somebody to be perceived, experience must be shared and mutually known to be shared, as it is when two pairs of eyes meet,” the researchers reported. “Young children’s natural tendency to acquire knowledge intersubjectively, by joint attention, leads them to undergo a developmental period in which they believe the self is something that must be mutually experienced for it to be perceived.”

Evidently, children only believe they exist when making eye contact with another person. The implications point to a simple but necessary way to make children feel present and involved. Cultures worldwide seem to have some version of “peek-a-boo,” as a quick Google image search reveals. Lack of eye contact in children has been linked as an early sign of autism, while the presence of eye contact is associated with empathy. Dr. Russell’s team seems to have discovered a key facet of cognitive development.

The results of Dr. Russell’s study were published in the Journal of Cognition and Development.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Russell, J., Gee, B., & Bullard, C. (2012). Why Do Young Children Hide by Closing Their Eyes? Self-Visibility and the Developing Concept of Self Journal of Cognition and Development, 13 (4), 550-576 DOI: 10.1080/15248372.2011.594826

Zachary Urbina

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with *

Cancel reply


  • Jon
    November 4, 2012, 13:41

    Interesting read. One note, an incorrect use of the word “there” is used in the 3rd paragraph, second line.

    • Anouk Vleugels@Jon
      November 5, 2012, 09:55

      Thanks Jon – We’ve corrected it.

  • Sam
    November 20, 2012, 02:07

    This study illustrates the kind of egocentrism that Jean Piaget defined in his stage-model theory of cognitive development. In the preoperational stage, two to seven years old, children display egocentrism, wherein they are unable to consider things from others’ points of view. I found it interesting that eye contact plays such a large role in cognitive development, and I would be interested in finding out how children diagnosed with autism react during this experiment.