Shaped in motherese

Interpersonal synchrony is skill for being in flow and is evidently learned from birth, through ‘motherese’ (Condon et al. 1974; Miall et al. 2003; Malloch and Trevarthen 2009). The voice and body of caretaker and child move together. It has been suggested that this capacity to rhythmically synchronize is developed before birth whilst in the womb with the myelination of the auditory nerve at 6 months old, enabling us to hear in the womb (Hall p. 177).

As adults, we have developed the ability to move in time with others and to express pragmatic meaning in time with others, where we seek information, clarity about what the other might mean, clarifying to the other our meaning, agreeing with the other, and expressing understanding. These pragmatic rhythms have been described as Body Moves (Gill et al. 2000) and as being culturally rooted. The origins of this cultural embodiment is suggested as being shaped in motherese and developed further in childhood thoughts and behaviours.

Miall and Dissanayake (2003) describe how the ‘poetic’ sounds/rhythms of a mother’s utterances and bodily engagement differ from ordinary adult interaction by being simplified, rhythmically repeated, exaggerated and elaborated to phonetically attract and sustain the baby’s attention. Using phonetic foregrounding, the mother expresses ‘patterns of intimacy and observation, empathy and commentary’. The aesthetics in this poetic engagement facilitates emotional attachment. Miall et al. propose that evidence of the sensitivity of infants as young as 6–8 weeks old to indications (vocal, visual, and Kinesic) of social contingency of carers is evidence of design in neural organization. They argue that this supports the view that mutuality or intersubjectivity, defined as the coordinating of behavioural–emotional states with another’s in temporally organized sequences, is a primary human psychobiological endowment. Disorders of emotion and learning in early childhood are traceable to faults in early brain growth of neural systems underlying this capacity (Travarthen and Aitken 1994; Trevarthen and Daniel 2005).

This proto-musicality seems to hold the key to understanding the fundamental qualities of intersubjectivity and formation of cultural rhythms. The infant learns to move with the speech structure of culture and sociobiological entrainment processes (Condon and Sander 1974) essential to its social survival. Which rhythm one performs as an adult is a function of the culture of the people who are around when these patterns are being learned. In his extensive study of generations of minorities in New York city, Efron (1972) identified the gesture trace of culture through the generations. The gesture trace is likely to have a recognizable rhythm.