Rethinking the origins of self-awareness in human infancy with virtual reality (VR)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: School of Psychology


The research currently surrounding the development of self-awareness in infants is relatively inconclusive, specifically research exploring when this ability is developed. This is largely due to the poor construct validity of the existing methods in this field. For example, for infants to pass the most common test of self-awareness (the mirror rouge test) they must first have an understanding of mirrors. This research therefore uses Newport's state-of the art portable VR equipment to combat these issues.

The VR equipment allows the participant to view images of their own body within bodily space as opposed to in a distant mirror image or projection, as required in current "out-of-body" testing methods. It also allows for live images rather than pre-recorded videos used by previous methods of self-awareness testing. This permits the use of the most ecologically valid cues possible. The portable VR equipment is also very suitable for use by infants as it is not as typically heavy head-mounted as standard VR equipment.

Infants' limbs are visually manipulated while in the VR machine to establish their sensitivity to such discrepancies. This sensitivity is measured using both looking time and by gathering somatosensory evoked responses (using a scalp EEG) to discover neural markers of self-awareness in infancy. The manipulations include spatial and temporal incongruities in order to explore various forms of infantile self-awareness. As it is believed self-awareness develops across all modalities early in life, manipulations are also administered through multiple modalities, namely touch and sight.
This research is very beneficial to this area of study as these basic understandings of the self go on to develop into more complex cognitive abilities, therefore it is imperative to discover where these abilities begin. Developing tests for self-awareness also allows identification of those who are developing atypically in this area. This early diagnosis of certain severe intellectual disabilities may assist in preventing potentially challenging behaviours from developing.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000711/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2399016 Studentship ES/P000711/1 28/09/2020 30/09/2024 Alice Emily Cousins