Who is it in the mirror?

Of babies, onions and the sense of self.

What does your child know about herself? When does she start asking herself who she is? When does she find her answer? Are YOU still asking yourself who you are?

These kind of tricky questions are very hot in the field of psychological research today.

Textbooks tell us that the sense of self develops between 18 and 24-month-old. However, we all know how complicated it is even for us adults to answer the question, ‘who am I?’

We can all agree that the development of the self takes way more time than just the first years of life. Adolescence and early adulthood are critical times for us to define our personhood.

Most psychologists and neuroscientists agree that we are born with a core sense of self – a ‘minimal self’ - that allows us to experience the world around us. From this small hub, we build up our sense of self over the whole lifetime, layers over layers. We like thinking about this as an onion, thin but numerous layers define the final structure. The relationship with others, mainly what we call ‘significant’ others, namely parents, siblings and peers, play a central role in defining our layers.

One of the first aspects of the self to arise is understanding what we look like. When I face myself in the mirror, I know that the reflection of that person is me. I know that this is how I appear to another person’s eyes. Being able to understand this might seem basic, but if you think about it for a moment, is not easy at all! You have actually never seen your own face – that’s a thought! We can’t have the experience of ourselves from the outside, so the recognition of my person in the mirror is not to be taken for granted.

The typical test used to explore the first signs of self-recognition is the mirror self-recognition task, also known as ‘rouge test.’ Without children noticing it, a red mark with lipstick is placed on their cheek. After this, they will be engaged in playing in front of a mirror. It is funny and interesting to see how different children react during this test! Some of them clearly immediately go for touching the dot on their own face. These behaviours are usually considered as a sign of recognition of their own person in the mirror.

A lot of toddlers are just really attracted by that nice little one looking at them from the mirror. Some of them bang or kiss the mirror. The cutest ones try to see behind the mirror: is there someone hiding there?

Since the seventies, this test has been widely used with animals as well! Apparently, elephants and monkeys successfully pass the test!

The rouge test is a really funny one to try out with your child up to her third year of life. For more precise indications, you can see week 46 of the Babybrains app. But please, don’t be stressed about standards and performances to attend, remember what we have already written about milestone stress.

The mechanisms behind self-recognition in the mirror are still debated in literature. Many researchers think that self-recognition is a cognitive skill that develops automatically, just as other cognitive skills do throughout the first few years of life. Another stream of psychology hypothesises that self-awareness is more than just a cognitive process. At the beginning of this article, we mentioned the importance of others in the process of the definition of the self. Scientists are embracing the idea that our minds are ‘open’ to absorbing stimulation from the environment (more on it in this interesting book). In line with this idea, this stream thinks sense of self is created from social interactions and communication. According to this theory, the mind is ‘socially’ shaped and the contribution of the child’s exchanges with others in crucial! Neuroscience shows that overlapping brain regions are activated when we think about ourselves and others (full article here).

Of course, cognitive processes are fundamental for self-recognition, but there is so much more to it. Social life plays a pivotal role. In fact, recognising myself in the mirror implies that what I see in the mirror is how other people see me. The perception of being perceived in a particular way might be part of my becoming this way.

We are social animals from the start. For example, if we think that others think of us as shy, we might act shyly to conform with their expectation, even if maybe we are not that timid. We need to be very careful whenever we label a child - it might become a self-fulfilling prophecy!

Going back to the physical aspects of the self, it is fascinating to notice that the feeling of ‘Oh dear! I've got something weird on my face!’ often brings reactions of embarrassment or upset already at 18-month-old. Emotions like shame or guilt are social. They arise with our sense of self and our valuation of others’ thoughts about us.

Recognising myself in the mirror contributes to my representation of my (physical) self. In this process, we do indeed use physical mirrors. We also need our fellow humans as social mirrors in our daily interactions.

As you can see, it’s easy to shift away from research and engage in theoretical arguments when we talk about this fascinating topic. Most of these hypotheses still need to be scientifically tested, but we are in good hands. Many neuroscientists are tirelessly working on it!

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