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