UEL Baby Dev Lab

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).