Hello Arnaud Leleu, you are a lecturer in psychology and neuroscience at the University of Burgundy (Centre des Sciences du Goût et de l’Alimentation).

You’ve agreed to talk to us today about how the senses contribute to a child’s socialisation.

First of all, how would you describe the socialisation of children?

If we simply look at the Wikipedia definition, socialisation covers “all the processes by which individuals acquire and internalise the norms, values and roles that govern social life and build their psychological and social identity”. It therefore covers all the psychological processes that enable us to understand and interact with the social environment. In psychology, we study social cognition in particular, which is a set of psychological functions that we use to understand and interact with others.

Young children have several stages in the development of social cognition, which are well summarised in a chapter by Philippe Rochat and Tricia Striano published in 1999. For example, an important stage that appears in the first year, around 7-8 months, is called social referencing. The child refers to adults, in particular parents, to learn how to behave in the face of events, with others, etc. At this age,reference is mainly sensory and emotional. Children adjust their own behaviour according to what they perceive of their parents’ reactions to events.

Rochat, P., & Striano, T. (1999). Social cognitive development in the first year. In P. Rochat (Ed.), Early
social cognition (pp. 3-35). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

That’s the subject of this interview: what role do the senses play in socialisation, or rather what role do I suppose they play?

The senses are the gateway to information about the outside world, and therefore information about the social environment. But the weight of sensory information varies according to the age of the individual. In the first six months of life, the senses almost exclusively dominate learning about the social world. The immaturity of a very young child’s motor system means that he or she cannot explore the world on his or her own, resulting in a form of “passive” exposure to the sensory stimuli that convey social information (even though, for example, a baby’s crying elicits a response from his or her parents and is already an active form of social interaction! ). To illustrate this, at the visual level, children are first exposed to the faces of their parents and, more generally, of their peers. From birth, they look closely at faces and, within a few months, learn to categorise them, i.e. to distinguish them from other objects in the environment and to recognise that different faces belong in the same category. They will then learn to identify the expressions on these faces and attribute emotions to them. These facial expressions thus play a part in the social referencing we mentioned earlier. Children react and adapt their behaviour to the emotions they perceive on other people’s faces. By observing their expressions or the direction of their gaze, they will gradually infer other people’s intentions and anticipate their behaviour in order to adapt their own. Visual learning about faces is therefore, in a way, the sensory foundation on which a whole range of increasingly sophisticated mental functions develops, enabling them to understand and interact with others.

To better understand this process of socialisation in the life of an adult: does this action of the senses on socialisation come to an end at some point in life, or does it never stop?

Since the senses provide us with information about the outside world, and therefore about the social environment, throughout our lives, we can’t say that the action of the senses stops one day. Adults will certainly be less sensory in their understanding of the social environment. At the very least, they may not be aware of the influence of the senses in their socialisation, and will rely explicitly on concepts, symbols, rationality and language. But the senses inevitably continue to influence the way in which an individual apprehends social information and adjusts to it throughout his or her life. An interesting example of a sensory socialising effect in adults is the impact of interpersonal synchrony. If you perceive a synchrony between your movements and those of other individuals (as when you dance to the same music), you will then be more inclined to cooperate with these individuals.

When do the senses start to play a part in a child’s socialisation?

I’ve already mentioned the important role of the senses in the first few months of an infant’s life. But their role in socialisation may well begin before birth, because the senses develop in utero. Like all mammals, human beings begin their development in a social environment: their mother’s body. The foetus learns the smell or voice of its mother and then, at birth, responds in a different way to other smells or voices. Maternal information, which is familiar and reassuring for the young child in the face of the upheavals that birth involves, is therefore the first social information that the child discovers sensorially. Furthermore, through breastfeeding, care, etc., babies satisfy their physiological needs mainly in the maternal context. The infant’s well-being, which involves a sensoriality that is often neglected – interoception (feeling the inside of the body), is therefore intimately linked to the first social relationships through interactions with the mother. In this respect, some psychologists, such as Lisa Feldman Barrett, theorise that as a social species, the young human being cannot survive and develop without social regulation of its physiology, and this regulation is above all through the senses in the first months of life. Senses and socialisation are therefore intertwined from the very start of life.

Is there a hierarchy of roles for the senses, or is it more a case of joint action? And does it depend on the moment?

Strictly speaking, there is no hierarchy, but rather a relative weighting that changes over the course of development. Certain senses develop first, well before birth, and play a major role in the sensoriality of the infant at birth. The so-called “proximal” senses (touch, taste, smell) are the first to develop and are therefore important at the start of life. Think of the close contact between baby and parents in the early stages. The “distal” senses, such as sight and hearing, then develop and take on an important role as the child grows. This form of hierarchy, or rather sequence, in sensory development allows the more developed senses to help the less developed senses.

In my research, for example, we have shown that the smell of the mother, which the baby recognises well from birth, helps the perception of faces after a few months, when sight is still underdeveloped. The mother’s smell thus helps to visually recognise that there are fellow creatures present in the environment. In other words, the senses help each other to learn social information and socialisation is a multi-sensory phenomenon, integrated between the senses as the child develops.

And conversely, if certain senses were not involved in contributing to the child’s socialisation, because of the total or partial disability of certain senses, what would be the different impacts that would ideally need to be taken into account?

I’m not a specialist in sensory deprivation, but the scientific data I’m aware of shows that the other senses are sufficient to ensure the proper development of socialisation. To my knowledge, there are no studies showing that the loss of one sense has an extremely deleterious impact on socialisation. Some very interesting results even show how the ‘social’ brain of individuals with sensory deprivation adapts. There seems to be a pre-wiring between the regions that process social information from the different senses, so that the functional senses will be able to ‘colonise’ and use the regions that were initially dedicated to the non-functioning sense. For example, in individuals born blind, the brain regions that would be used to recognise faces in sighted individuals respond to voices.

Similarly, a region that normally responds to voices in hearing individuals responds to faces in deaf individuals. So in an individual who does not have the use of a sense, the other senses reuse the unstimulated regions. In a way, the ‘social’ regions remain social but are now used by other senses.

What advice would you give to parents or those responsible for the education of young children to help them take better account of the contribution of the senses to a child’s socialisation?

The first piece of advice I would give is to play with your child, stimulating all the senses and helping them to discover the world. This is one of the principles of the 5 senses for kids Foundation! It’s also important to remember that children learn about the world through their parents, their reactions to events, their emotions and the nature of their interactions with other people. Children learn to interact with their environment by referring to their parents (the principle of social referencing mentioned above). If you are an adult who is stressed by many events, anxious about anything new, with a predominance of negative emotions, this is what the child will learn. This will be their first pattern of interaction with the world. On the other hand, if you are a parent who is extremely curious, creative and driven by positive emotions, the child will learn a completely different relationship with the environment. And since sensoriality predominates at the beginning of life, we often overlook the quantity of sensorial cues that we convey and to which the child is extremely sensitive: the intonation of the voice, facial expressions, the way we move (and move him), the way we touch him, and so on.

To illustrate this point, I’ll mention an example from my personal experience. I knew two couples who each had a daughter of the same age. One day, when the two children must have been a year and a half or two years old, the two fathers were playing with their daughters in a park where we were spending the afternoon. But the two fathers were very different in their behaviour. One was very worried and stressed about his daughter exploring this park full of obstacles and dangers. The other was very encouraging and amused.

Like their fathers, the two little girls behaved very differently. While the first looked worried every time something came up, crying when she had to avoid a fall, the second ran, explored more and sometimes fell and got up laughing. There was a very clear link between the behaviour of fathers and the behaviour of little girls. Admittedly, there are many factors that can explain the behaviour of little girls and there’s nothing to indicate to me that the fathers’ behaviour was the primary cause, but it fascinated me because I’d known for a long time the differences between the two fathers and I was observing, in mirror image, the behaviour of their daughters.

What advice would you give to parents or those responsible for the education of young children to better take into account the contribution of the senses to a child’s socialisation?

For those of you who are familiar with scientific articles, I invite you to read some of the references I have used in my questions. For a more accessible summary, there is a series of 5 articles on the subject of children’s socialisation according to their stage of development on the ” Les Pros de la Petite Enfance ” website.

Many thanks Arnaud Leleu