A study conducted by researchers from Florida Atlantic University (FAU) has provided unprecedented information about the origins of agency by exploring how babies develop purposeful actions. Using motion capture technology, the researchers observed the moment when babies realized they could have an impact on their environment. This study marks the first time in 50 years that mobile movement has been directly measured in experiments with babies.

The findings reveal that agency emerges from the coordinated relationship between the baby and the moving object. At a certain level of coordination, the baby recognizes their ability to influence their environment and transitions from spontaneous behavior to intentional behavior. The researchers utilized innovative motion capture technology to record the movements of both the babies and the mobile objects in a three-dimensional space. By analyzing the data, they were able to identify a distinctive moment of realization, which they have called the “birth of agency.” This moment was characterized by a sudden increase in the baby’s rate of movement.

The study also found that agency is not solely determined by active movements, but also by moments of stillness. The dynamic coordination between movement and stillness constitutes the baby’s conscious awareness of their ability to intentionally impact the world. These findings offer new insights into the development of agency in human beings and could have implications for preventive care and early intervention for at-risk babies.

The study was supported by the FAU Foundation and the National Institute of Mental Health.

Nancy Jones et al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Florida Atlantic University press release.