UEL Baby Dev Lab

New insights into how the infant brain subserves dynamic social interactions

New insights into how the infant brain subserves dynamic social interactions

Dynamic interaction diagram
Dynamic interaction diagram
Megan Whitehorn

Hello! My name is Megan Whitehorn, I am a PhD student supervised by Prof. Sam Wass. I am currently working on the Leverhulme Project, funded by a Research Project grant from the Leverhulme Trust.

My PhD project focuses on the complex interplay of adult and infant attention during the crucial 9-12 month age period, how this can be interpreted neurally, and the methods best suited to investigating this topic.

Over the course of the first year, infants seem to learn the skills necessary to interact socially with their parents and siblings; they become capable of sustaining1 and regulating2 their attention enough to recognise3 (and possibly learn how to imitate) a vocabulary of ostensive4 signals, across multiple sensory modalities. However, we know little of the neural mechanisms by which information is shared between babies’ and parents’ brains while they engage in social interaction. This project aims to examine the complex interplay of the parent and infant’s EEG signals, in the context of their recordable social behaviours (ex. eye-gaze and touching) and biosocial signals (heart-rate5 and vocalisations.) The age group of children in the current study represent a crucial 9-12 month period where parental “scaffolding”6 of behaviour becomes more nuanced; as the infant begins to use imitated and innate gestures in a deliberate, communicative way (for example, pointing7), and the parent responds contingently8 to those signals. I believe it will be possible to examine and compare states of deliberate, effortful social signalling (“leading”) and states of receptiveness to social signals (“following”) by comparing (a) relative levels of activation in the parent and infant’s brain simultaneously, alongside (b) the brain regions that activate and (c) the inter-related (I.E. inter-partner9) timing of “peaks” in activation.

Interaction setup diagram
Interaction setup diagram

This project also aims to address a deficit in current research on infant attention; namely the paucity of naturalistic datasets. We assume that social learning (and the development of associated regulatory skills) takes place (a) in shared contexts, during social interactions with a partner10 and (b) probably in a complex and unregulated environment11. However, analysis of non-naturalistic behaviour is often reflected in conclusions that do not reflect general infant behaviour (for example; though a typical clinical paradigm might involve the infant seeing a “portrait” view of their parent, evidence suggests that infants direct longer periods of gaze to manual cues than to faces in naturalistic environments.12)

To account for these limitations, in the Leverhulme project, we are collecting a rich naturalistic database (neural signals, vocalisations, heart-rate13, eye-gaze14 behaviour) which attempts to account for the multitude of environmental factors that impact attention, while also minimizing the impact of the recording method on the behaviour. We collect behavioural data from infants at play, both alone and with their parents. All of the methods used have been chosen and calibrated, where possible, to minimise impact of the recording system on naturalistic behaviour. This is beneficial, as it allows me to examine possible synchronicities and differences between infants’ naturalistic patterns of attention and their neural responses, as well as to explore inter-brain connections (mother-brain to infant-brain) at a crucial period in the infant’s social learning.

I am also passionate about science education, both for those eager to learn and those “not in the know”- besides being the department winner for UEL’s “3-Minute Thesis” competition (see below), I am also taking part in the secondary school outreach programme, “I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out of Here!


  1. Suarez-Rivera, C., Smith, L. B., & Yu, C. (2019). Multimodal parent behaviors within joint attention support sustained attention in infants. Developmental psychology55(1), 96.
  2. Reid, V. M., & Striano, T. (2007). The directed attention model of infant social cognition. European Journal of Developmental Psychology4(1), 100-110.
  3. Csibra, G., & Gergely, G. (2006). Social learning and social cognition: The case for pedagogy. Processes of change in brain and cognitive development. Attention and performance XXI21, 249-274.
  4. Okumura, Y., Kanakogi, Y., Kobayashi, T., & Itakura, S. (2020). Ostension affects infant learning more than attention. Cognition195, 104082.
  5. Feldman, R., Magori-Cohen, R., Galili, G., Singer, M., & Louzoun, Y. (2011). Mother and infant coordinate heart rhythms through episodes of interaction synchrony. Infant Behavior and Development34(4), 569-577.
  6. Clackson, K., Wass, S., Georgieva, S., Brightman, L., Nutbrown, R., Almond, H., … & Leong, V. (2019). Do helpful mothers help? Effects of maternal scaffolding and infant engagement on cognitive performance. Frontiers in psychology10, 2661.
  7. Tomasello, M., Carpenter, M., & Liszkowski, U. (2007). A new look at infant pointing. Child development78(3), 705-722.
  8. Mcquaid, N. E., Bibok, M. B., & Carpendale, J. I. (2009). Relation between maternal contingent responsiveness and infant social expectations. Infancy14(3), 390-401.
  9. Leong, V., Noreika, V., Clackson, K., Georgieva, S., Brightman, L., Nutbrown, R., … & Wass, S. (2019). Mother-infant interpersonal neural connectivity predicts infants’ social learning.
  10. Stephens, G., & Matthews, D. (2014). The communicative infant from 0-18 months: The social-cognitive foundations of pragmatic development.
  11. Kennedy, E. (2013). Orchids and dandelions: How some children are more susceptible to environmental influences for better or worse and the implications for child development. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry18(3), 319-321.
  12. Boyer, T. W., Harding, S. M., & Bertenthal, B. I. (2020). The temporal dynamics of infants’ joint attention: Effects of others’ gaze cues and manual actions. Cognition197, 104151.
  13. Curtindale, L. M., Bahrick, L. E., Lickliter, R., & Colombo, J. (2019). Effects of multimodal synchrony on infant attention and heart rate during events with social and nonsocial stimuli. Journal of experimental child psychology178, 283-294.
  14. Brooks, R., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2014). Gaze following: A mechanism for building social connections between infants and adults.