Parents often wonder what, exactly, babies see when they look in the mirror. Well, there’s a somewhat spooky developmental stage that children go through as they develop theory of mind, during which they’re apt to demonstrate a bizarrely splintered sense of self. Daniel Povinelli of the University of Louisiana captured this moment in 2001 when he showed 3-year-old Jennifer a video of herself sitting, with a sticker on her forehead. He asked her what she saw. “It’s Jennifer. It’s a sticker,” she began, correctly. “But why is she wearing my shirt?” So when do kids become self-aware? It’s a long, strange journey.
Self-awareness, it turns out, comes in stages. While Jennifer could comprehend the actions in the video, there was a disconnect when it came to understanding that the little girl in the video was, in fact, her. A little boy gazing into a mirror may understand that he’s looking at his own reflection, for example, but not grasp that the image is what he looks like all the time, sans mirror. An older girl might comprehend the permanence of her image, but not fully understand that this is also the image that other people see.
At some point, of course, we all level up to this fundamental sense of self, but it unfolds through a long and complex set of milestones, many of which go unnoticed. So, when do babies become self-aware? In 2003, Emory University’s Philippe Rochat scoured developmental studies to construct his Five Stages of Self-Awareness, describing how children learn to identify themselves and their loved ones as distinct entities, from birth until age 5.
Each of Rochat’s stages revolves around the mirror test for babies, an assessment of self-awareness that rose to prominence in the 1970s. Chimpanzees, dolphins, and elephants have all passed the most basic mirror test, which means they can look in a mirror and gesture toward a tiny, odorless mark that was painted on their faces while they were sleeping. But the mirror test does not end with dotted dolphins. Rochat crafted his Five Stages based on studies of how newborns and toddlers interact with mirrors, photographs, and video recordings. Here’s what he found.
Stage 1 (Birth): The Baby in the Mirror
The most primitive stage of interacting with a mirror involves slamming into it, unaware that it’s a mirror. (Ask a bird what it’s like to take a beating from a pristine glass window.) Fortunately, studies suggest humans skip this stage entirely, which Rochat calls Level 0, or “confusion.” Although the 19th-century philosopher William James wrote that infants are born in a state of “blooming, buzzing, confusion,” Rochat argues that infants can almost immediately differentiate between self and non-self touch. There’s a basic self-awareness that this is my body.
That only goes so far, however, in achieving Level 1 (“differentiation”). A newborn knows that there’s a difference between his image and the background images in the mirror, and between himself and his environment. But a deeper sense of self-awareness will have to wait. “Infants do not come to the world with the exclusive expression of self-obliviousness,” Rochan writes. “It appears that immediately after birth, infants are capable of demonstrating already a sense of their own body as a differentiated entity: an entity among other entities in the environment.”
Stage 2 (2 Months): Manipulating the Mirror Image
Only two months after birth, infants achieve Level 2 (“situation”). Now, the baby not only recognizes the difference between herself and the environment, but also gains a sense of how her body is situated relative to that environment. Although studies suggest even newborns can copy facial expressions, it isn’t until about 2 months that a baby figures out how to manipulate their own body to respond to the environment. This is perhaps best illustrated by a 1992 study that found that 2-month-olds could mimic an adult sticking his tongue out to either the left or right. “In addition to differentiating their own actions from those of the model,” Rochan writes. “They are also capable of mapping their own bodily space to the bodily space of the model.”
But it doesn’t take a tongue study to demonstrate that a 2-month-old has achieved situational awareness. Ask any parent: Babies this age reach for everything. The simple act of estimating the distance to an object in the environment and reaching for it is a self-awareness milestone. Because you don’t reach for an item unless you recognize that objects external to yourself exist.
Stage 3 (18 Months): Basic Self-Awareness
This is when babies first pass the basic mirror test. Between the ages of 18 months and 2 years, children learn that the image in the mirror is not only distinct from the rest of the environment (Level 1) and not only distinct from the in-mirror environment (Level 2), but a representation of themselves (Level 3, “identification”). At 18 months, an infant will reach for a mark painted on his or her body, using only the image in the mirror as an indication that something on the “self” is amiss.
This may also be why 18 months is when most children begin to develop language skills. Language demands, “a theory of the self as distinct from other people, and a theory of the self from the point of view of one’s conversational partners,” cognitive scientist Elizabeth Bates wrote in 1990.
Stage 4 (2 to 3 Years): The Ups and Downs of Object Permanence
The next few years are developmentally awkward, as perhaps best captured by Jennifer, the 3-year-old who wondered why her image was wearing her clothes. Rochan calls this the “Me-But-Not-Me” dilemma. On the road to full self-awareness, toddlers begin to identify the image in the mirror as “self” but still frequently revert to seeing the image as an odd third-person version of self. That can be hard to grasp (and a bit terrifying to imagine), but it means that if the researchers had asked Jennifer who she saw in the mirror, she would have probably said “me.” And yet, if asked to describe three figures in the mirror, she might have responded “Mommy, Daddy, and Jennifer.”
Stage 4 (“permanence”) comes slowly. “They appear to still oscillate between an awareness of the self and an awareness of seeing someone else facing them,” Rochat writes.
Stage 5 (4 to 5 Years): The Dawn of Self-Consciousness
The final stage hits us like a ton of bricks around age 4 and is known as “meta self-awareness” — or self-consciousness. At this age, a child first realizes that the image in the mirror is not just “me” (Level 3) and not just “me” permanently (Level 4) but the “me” that everyone else sees. Four-year-olds often respond to this realization by becoming mirror-shy, hiding their faces whenever they see their reflections. Now that they know that’s what everyone else sees, they’re unsettled.
Adults also hover at Level 5 — and though we can be easily unsettled by our reflections, we’re largely adapted to the permanent self that’s there for everyone to see. Indeed, when the legendary anthropologist Edmund Carpenter presented a mirror to Papua New Guinea tribesmen in 1975, they jumped straight to Level 5 — but with all the disappointment that one would expect from a newcomer to mirror-based meta self-awareness. ‘‘They were paralyzed,” Carpenter wrote. “After their first startled response — covering their mouths and ducking their heads — they stood transfixed, staring at their images, only their stomach muscles betraying great tension.”
That, right there, is self-awareness in a nutshell: That’s a mirror (Level 1); there’s a person in it (Level 2); that person is me (Level 3); that person is going to be me forever (Level 4); and everyone else can see it (Level 5).
Queue your 5-year-old’s first existential crisis.