Amodal Perception, Vitality Affects, and Affective Attunement
Two ways that an infant comes to know the world around himself include amodal perception and vitality affects. Amodal perception is the ability to take information received in one sensory modality and translate it into another sensory modality. For example, by three weeks of age, an infant can match the absolute intensity of audio and visual stimuli. Infants also have the ability to cross-modally match auditory temporal and visual temporal patterns. Additionally, infants can recognize audio-visual correspondences. They can associate the movements of the mouth that make a sound with the auditory presentation of the sound. Lastly, infants often correspond what they see and what they do. By two days old, they will imitate facial expressions they see others make. However, it is not known whether or not this correspondence between their actions and the actions of others is reflexive of imitative. However, amodal perception suggests that the infant already has a sense of an emergent self and an emergent other. For example, rather than perceiving a “seen” breast and a “sucked” breast, the infant could cross modally associate or integrate the two.
Vitality affects are another way that infants come know the world. Stern delineates between vitality affects and categorical affects, such as shame, happiness, or anger. Vitality affects are the forms of feelings involved in all the various vital processes of life, including breathing, hunger, waking, and the experience of thoughts and emotions. The experience of vitality affects occurs along an “activation contour,” wherein the experience of one behavior or feeling can be abstracted and applied amodally to another. For example, a mother, empathetically responding to her distressed infant, may utter, “There, there,” emphasizing the initial word and saying the second softer. At the same time, she strokes her child’s back, with the first touch being stronger and becoming gentler. In this way, the utterance and the physical touch share an activation contour and can be integrated into one emergent mother. Vitality affects and activation contours, then, may provide the explanation for the mechanism behind amodal perception.
When their children are around nine months old, mothers begin to engage in affective attunements of their children’s behavior and affective states. An example of an affective attunement is the following: A child eats a Cheerio all by himself, squirms with delight, and then looks to his mother who exclaims, “Yes!” The mother’s utterance matches the intensity of the infant’s delight. In such affective attunements, there is a cross-modal matching of behavior and affective content (or feeling state) through activation contours. Amodal perception, then, is part of the process of affective attunement that contributes to the infant’s sense of an emerging self and an emerging other who can share in one’s affective state without explicitly imitating behaviors that reflect the inner experience of the infant.