The non-verbal narrative in adult-infant engagements

Jonathan Delafield-Butt, Susanne Harder, Mette Væver, Colwyn Trevarthen

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


Narrative is regarded as fundamental to human meaning-making with a history of study that dates back to the ancient Greeks. Stories between adult individuals made with expressions of voice and gesture altogether produce regular narrative patterns of engagement characterised by a four-part structure that (i) opens the engagement, (ii) builds through reciprocated cycles of expression with cross-modal fluency and expressive timing before, (iii) reaching a climax of intensity, and (iv) receding to conclusion and quiescence again. This basic narrative structure, found across adult dialogue and story-telling in music, film, dance and drama, is also present in early mother-infant proto-conversational engagements. We present an analysis of the movements and vocalisations recorded from ten mother-infant pairs in face-to-face engagements, at four and seven months of age. We identify narrative events, their composition, timing, and frequency. We discuss their putative importance in generating affective attunement and effective co-regulation within the dyad, giving periods of socioemotional learning. The presence of co-created narrative structures in early infant social development suggests this pattern of engagement, with its characteristic four-part structure, is a foundational process that gives shared meaning to human minds.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2012
EventBPS 2012 Developmental Section Annual Conference 2012 - Glasgow, United Kingdom
Duration: 5 Sep 20127 Sep 2012


ConferenceBPS 2012 Developmental Section Annual Conference 2012
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


  • non-verbal narrative
  • adult-infant engagements
  • events
  • frequency
  • timing
  • composition


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