A Dynamic Systems Framework for Gender/Sex Development: From Sensory Input in Infancy to Subjective Certainty in Toddlerhood

Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 15:613789 (2021)
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Abstract

From birth to 15 months infants and caregivers form a fundamentally intersubjective, dyadic unit within which the infant’s ability to recognize gender/sex in the world develops. Between about 18 and 36 months the infant accumulates an increasingly clear and subjective sense of self as female or male. We know little about how the precursors to gender/sex identity form during the intersubjective period, nor how they transform into an independent sense of self by 3 years of age. In this Theory and Hypothesis article I offer a general framework for thinking about this problem. I propose that through repetition and patterning, the dyadic interactions in which infants and caregivers engage imbue the infant with an embodied, i.e., sensori-motor understanding of gender/sex. During this developmental period (which I label Phase 1) gender/sex is primarily an intersubjective project. From 15 to 18 months (which I label Phase 2) there are few reports of newly appearing gender/sex behavioral differences, and I hypothesize that this absence reflects a period of developmental instability during which there is a transition from gender/sex as primarily inter-subjective to gender/sex as primarily subjective. Beginning at 18 months (i.e., the start of Phase 3), a toddler’s subjective sense of self as having a gender/sex emerges, and it solidifies by 3 years of age. I propose a dynamic systems perspective to track how infants first assimilate gender/sex information during the intersubjective period (birth to 15 months); then explore what changes might occur during a hypothesized phase transition (15 to 18 months), and finally, review the emergence and initial stabilization of individual subjectivity-the period from 18 to 36 months. The critical questions explored focus on how to model and translate data from very different experimental disciplines, especially neuroscience, physiology, developmental psychology and cognitive development. I close by proposing the formation of a research consortium on gender/sex development during the first 3 years after birth.

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