Div. 7 Award Winners

Dissertation Award winner: Maria Laura Filippetti

A summary of Maria Laura Filippetti 's research, “Body Perception in Infancy.”

By Maria Laura Filippetti

In our daily encounters, as we sense and act in the surrounding environment, we perceive our movements in a unique manner, we are able to recognize that the facial features we see in front of a mirror belong to our own face, and we are self-conscious and aware of ourselves. Nevertheless, how and when these aspects that uniquely define the self originate and develop is still a matter of debate. Historically, much attention has been given to the developmental trajectories of conceptual aspects of the self, such as the construction of self-consciousness; however, the role of perceptual and implicit aspects of body perception remains controversial.

In the past two decades, adult research has provided behavioral and neuroscientific evidence on the crucial role of multisensory processing in influencing body awareness, suggesting that our mental representation of the bodily-self is flexible and can be updated by multisensory signals. A classic example comes from the Rubber Hand Illusion (Botvinick & Cohen, 1998). In this illusion, participants are tricked to perceive a rubber hand as belonging to their own body, through the synchronous stroking between their own real hand and the fake hand (Botvinick & Cohen, 1998). Evidence that this interaction between visual, proprioceptive and tactile signals can produce such a powerful change in one's own mental body representation suggests that processing of sensory information may represent a valuable precursor of body perception from the earliest stages of development . A number of studies have shown that multisensory processing becomes functional quite early in life ( e.g., Bahrick & Watson, 1985; Morgan & Rochat, 1997) , though there remains some uncertainty concerning the age of onset and the specific contribution of different sensory modalities (Reddy, Chisholm, Forrester, Conforti, & Maniatopoulou, 2007; Zmyj, Jank, Schu¨tz-Bosbach, & Daum, 2011). Based on this research, the overarching goal of this dissertation was to investigate how body perception originates and evolves, both from a developmental and neuroscientific perspective.

This dissertation has illuminated hitherto undocumented behavioral and neural mechanisms involved in body perception from the first stages of development, which may be precursors of later body representation. In a series of studies, this research work presented evidence of the ability of human newborns and 5-month-old infants to detect multisensory information in the context of body-related cues. Specifically, I have shown that newborns can detect the temporal and spatial invariants of visual-tactile signals and that this preference only exists when the sensory stimulations provided are relevant for the infant's own body (Filippetti et al., 2013; 201 5 ). Furthermore, I revealed the presence of a similar pattern of visual preference in older infants, suggesting a developmental trajectory from birth to 5 months where infants seek redundant multisensory cues to specify the bodily-self (Filippetti et al., 2016). Continuing from these novel findings, I have explored the neural underpinnings of body perception, with the aim of providing more direct converging evidence on the role of multisensory processing for the development of body perception in the first stages of life. Through the use of functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) with 5-month-old infants, I revealed the presence of specialized cortical activation in response to multisensory information related to the body (Filippetti et al., 2015).

While the present findings represent a pioneering starting point for the investigation of the ontogeny and developmental trajectories of mechanisms responsible for body perception, more research is needed to understand the specific role of multisensory processing and its relation with visual appearance for the development of a mental representation of ourselves. In fact, while this work demonstrates that soon after birth infants have the propensity to orient their attention towards self-specifying information, the ability to process multisensory cues does not necessarily imply that the infant is able to recognize this information as belonging to the self. For example, when encountering our own reflection in front of a mirror, we must be familiar with our own facial features to recognize that face as standing for ourselves. Crucially, we must also be able to associate these unique features to ourselves every time we see our reflection in a mirror, meaning that we must eventually build an offline mental representation of how we look like. The key role of both visual appearance and multisensory processing in self-recognition, and their relation in the developmental process of learning to recognize ourselves remains poorly understood, and more research is needed to tackle this important issue.

References

Bahrick, L., & Watson, J. (1985). Detection of intermodal proprioceptive-visual contingency as a potential basis of self-perception in infancy. Developmental Psychology, 21 (6), 963-973.

Botvinick, M., & Cohen, J. (1998). Rubber hands “feel” touch that eyes see. Nature, 391 (6669 ), 756–756.

Filippetti, M. L., Farroni, T., & Johnson, M. H. (2016). Five-month-old infants' discrimination of visual-tactile synchronous facial stimulation. Infant and Child Development, 25 (3) , 317-322.

Filippetti, M. L., Johnson, M. H., Lloyd-Fox, S., Dragovic, D., & Farroni, T. (2013). Body perception in newborns. Current Biology, 23 (23), 2413-2416.

Filippetti, M. L., Lloyd-Fox, S., Longo, M. R., Farroni, T., & Johnson, M. H. (2015). Neural mechanisms of body awareness in infants.  Cerebral Cortex, 25 (10), 3779-3787.

Filippetti, M. L., Orioli, G., Johnson, M. H., & Farroni, T. (2015). Newborn body perception: Sensitivity to spatial congruency. Infancy20 (4), 455-465.

Morgan, R., & Rochat, P. (1997). Intermodal calibration of the body in early infancy. Ecological Psychology, 9 (1), 1-23.

Reddy, V., Chisholm, V., Forrester, D., Conforti, M., & Maniatopoulou, D. (2007). Facing the perfect contingency: Interactions with the self at 2 and 3 months. Infant Behavior & Development, 30 (2), 195–212.

Zmyj, N., Jank, J., Schu¨tz-Bosbach, S., & Daum, M. M. (2011). Detection of visual tactile contingency in the first year after birth. Cognition, 120 (1), 82–9.