This is a post about an article first-authored by my PhD student Emily Phillips, with Louise Goupil, Ira Marriott Haresign, Megan Whitehorn and Vicky Leong. The preprint is here.
The paper is looking at infants’ ability to engage in joint attention with an adult caregiver – which we know (it’s much discussed!) as something that is fundamental to the development of language and social cognition.
Historically, many theoretical perspectives on this emphasise that joint attention is achieved through the deliberate use of social signalling in caregiver-infant dyads. But our study, in which we measured microdynamical fluctuations in brain activity and behaviour during naturalistic play between 12-month-olds and their caregivers, challenged this.
In particular, when we compared moments of infant-led and adult-led joint attention, we found no evidence that infants used ostensive signalling before an infant-led attention episode, as we’d expected to find. And we found no evidence that endogenous neural oscillatory activity increased before infant-led attention, as most current theories would predict.
Importantly, though – and despite this absence of social signalling prior to a new attention episode – infants did appear sensitive to whether or not a social partner responded to their bid for joint attention. When their caregiver joined in with an infant-initiated attention bid we observed alpha suppression, suggesting that infants are encoding the predicted outcome of their initiation towards an object, on their partner’s behaviour (i.e. following their attention).
We think that our findings are important because they point to a potential new mechanism through which joint attention can be established and maintained without the deliberate use of social signalling. They challenge the widespread view that infant engagement in joint attention towards the end of the first year is achieved through higher-order intentional mechanisms – suggesting instead that action-generated contingencies may play an important role in learning how to pay attention jointly with a social partner.
Anyway, exciting stuff! You can read more about it here.