Behavioural and Neural Dynamics of Early, Naturalistic, Infant-Caregiver Interactions
I’m Emily Phillips one of three PhD students working on the Leverhulme Trust-funded project, investigating the behavioural and neural dynamics of early, naturalistic, infant-caregiver interactions.
Temporal and spatial coordination of one’s gaze with another’s, or joint attention, is fundamental to successful social interaction and shared cognition (Hamilton, 2021). How and when infants begin to engage in joint attention is central to many traditional theories of language acquisition and the development of the uniquely human capacity to understand and share intentions (Tomasello et al., 2005). Despite this, we currently know little about the neural and cognitive mechanisms that guide infant attention during early shared interactions. Examining these mechanisms is critical to our understanding of how early communication skills and socio-cognitive abilities develop in infancy.
Much previous work on the development of joint attention has been conducted in highly structured, experimental paradigms: far from the fast-changing, multi-layered complexity of naturalistic free-flowing interactions (Wass et al., 2020). Though recent studies have begun to investigate the micro-dynamics of caregiver-infant attention during shared play (e.g. Yu and Smith, 2017), we can only understand so much about the cognitive processes that support infant attention using behavioural methods alone. This is because similar behaviours; for example, making eye contact with a social partner or vocalising, can occur across graded levels of attentional and intentional engagement (Sipovosa & Carpenter, 2019).
In my PhD research, I combine neural and behavioural methods to examine how infants learn to direct and share the attention of an adult partner. Our project records dual EEG from caregivers and infants during naturalistic, free-flowing interactions with toys. From this data, a mutli-dimensional, continuous picture of the interaction can be extracted: across brain activity, attention (through recording their eye gaze), and communicative behaviour (see figure below).
In a recent paper, for example, we examined whether 10-12-month-old infants play a proactive role in creating episodes of joint attention with their caregiver. To do so, we identified moments in the interaction that infants either led or followed their adult partner’s attention towards an object, and analysed infant neural activity occurring in the time before and after look onset. Contrary to our predictions, infant-led joint attention episodes appeared largely reactive: they were not associated with increased endogenous oscillatory activity or communicative cues before the initiation. Infants were, however, sensitive to their gaze being followed: when caregivers joined their attention, infants showed a pattern of neural activity associated with anticipatory processing. Our results suggest that at 10-12 months, infants are not yet proactive in creating joint attention. They do, however, anticipate behavioural contingency, a potentially foundational mechanism for the emergence of intentional communication. The pre-print of this article can be viewed here: https://europepmc.org/article/ppr/ppr432300.
In future analysis, we aim to explore how infants’ neural activity responds to, or ‘tracks’ the communicative behaviours of their caregiver. From this, exciting, new hypotheses can be generated: are, for example, infants more attuned to their partner’s vocalisations when they are engaged in episodes of joint attention?