UEL Baby Dev Lab

Bidirectional Mechanisms rather than Alternatives: The Role of Sustained Attention in Interactive Contexts Can Only Be Understood through Joint Attention

Phillips, E., Wass, S. 2021. Human Development

Although associations between joint attention and infant development have been extensively investigated (eg, Carpenter et al., 1998; Donnellan et al., 2020; Mundy & Newell, 2007), the question of how, exactly, interactive behaviours support infant learning remains widely debated (Abney et al., 2020; Tomasello et al., 2007). Hudspeth and Lewis (this issue, DOI 10.1159/000515681) suggest that measures of joint attention in early interaction with an adult partner might merely reflect the ability of the infant to sustain their attention. This theory places infant object engagement at the forefront of attention and learning in joint interaction, in contrast to more traditional views that emphasise infants’ engagement with the attentional behaviours of their adult partner (eg, Carpenter et al., 1998). First, we discuss Hudspeth and Lewis’s comments on methodological issues to do with defining sustained attention. Next, we consider an important point that they do not mention - namely, the inconsistencies in defining joint attention in the literature. We end by exploring endogenous and exogenous influences on sustained and concurrent looking in early interaction, as well as their implications for understanding infant learning.

Proactive or reactive? Neural oscillatory insight into the leader-follower dynamics of early infant-caregiver interaction

Phillips, E., Goupil, L., Marriott-Haresign, I., Bruce-Gardyne, E., Csolsim, F. A., Whitehorn, M., Leong, M., Wass., S. 2021. PsyArXiv

We know that infants’ ability to coordinate attention with others towards the end of the first year is fundamental to language acquisition and social cognition (Carpenter et al., 1998). Yet, we understand little about the neural and cognitive mechanisms driving infant attention in shared interaction: do infants play a proactive role in creating episodes of joint attention? Recording EEG from 12-month-old infants whilst they engaged in table-top play with their caregiver, we examined the ostensive signals and neural activity preceding and following infant-vs. adult-led joint attention. Contrary to traditional theories of socio-communicative development (Tomasello et al., 2007), infant-led joint attention episodes appeared largely reactive: they were not associated with increased theta power, a neural marker of endogenously driven attention, or ostensive signals before the initiation. Infants were, however, sensitive to whether their initiations were responded to. When caregivers joined their attentional focus, infants showed increased alpha suppression, a pattern of neural activity associated with predictive 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 (Smith & Breazeal, 2007).