Intrinsic motives for companionship in understanding: Their origin, development, and significance for infant mental health


  • Colwyn Trevarthen

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Psychology, The University of Edinburgh
    • Department of Psychology, University of Edinburgh, 7 George Square, Edinburgh, EH8 9JZ, Scotland
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Human beings are not merely social, they are inherently cultural. Infants are born with motives in their complex brains that lead them to learn through communicating about intentions, interests, and feelings with trusted companions, and to interpret with them a common reality. A baby is weak, immature in behaviour, and dependent on parental care and external regulation of emotions and protection from stress. But the baby is also capable and interested from birth in engaging “protoconversationally” with the dynamic thoughts and enthusiams of caregivers. Long before speaking, infants imitate purposeful actions and recognise objects that others treat as meaningful, responding sympathetically to emotions that evaluate these objects. How they do this, their motives for cooperative intersubjectivity or joint consciousness in companionship, has been elucidated by detailed analysis of the purposeful regulation of expressions between parents and infants from birth to the threshold of language.

The emotions of relating to share intelligent awareness of a world are additional to those self-regulatory emotions that express pleasure or pain, interest, fatigue, hunger, and so on. They are “relational” emotions, anticipating contingent rhythms and sympathy of interest from others, and collaboration in purposes. The so-called “complex” emotions, the interpersonal sense of “pride” in admired accomplishment, and “shame” in being misunderstood or disliked, are part of the innate human moral condition. Powerful innate emotions of human relating, evident in infants, and different from those that establish and regulate attachment for care and protection, bring risks of mental illness associated with failure in collaborative intersubjectivity. The principles of infant mental health define the fundamental interpersonal needs for the whole life cycle. ©2001 Michigan Association for Infant Mental Health.