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Brain development, infant communication, and empathy disorders: Intrinsic factors in child mental health

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  31 October 2008

Colwyn Trevarthen*
Edinburgh Centre for Research in Child Development, Department of Psychology, University of Edinburgh
Kenneth J. Aitken
Edinburgh Centre for Research in Child Development, Department of Psychology, University of Edinburgh Department of Clinical Psychology, Hospital for Sick Children, Edinburgh, Scotland
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Prof. Colwyn Trevarthen, Dept. of Psychology, The University of Edinburgh, 7 George Square, Edinburgh EII8 9JZ, Scotland, UK.


Disorders of emotion, communication, and learning in early childhood are considered in light of evidence on human brain growth from embryo stages. We cite microbehavioral evidence indicating that infants are born able to express the internal activity of their brains, including dynamic “motive states” that drive learning. Infant expressions stimulate the development of imitative and reciprocal relations with corresponding dynamic brain states of caregivers. The infant's mind must have an “innate self-with-other representation” of the inter-mind correspondence and reciprocity of feelings that can be generated with an adult.

Primordial motive systems appear in subcortical and limbic systems of the embryo before the cerebral cortex. These are presumed to continue to guide the growth of a child's brain after birth. We propose that an “intrinsic motive formation” is assembled prenatally and is ready at birth to share emotion with caregivers for regulation of the child's cortical development, on which cultural cognition and learning depend.

The intrinsic potentiality for “intersubjectivity” can be disorganized if the epigenetic program for the infant's brain fails. Indeed, many psychological disorders of childhood can be traced to faults in early stages of brain development when core motive systems form.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1994

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