Human infants learn about their world, and themselves, during a long period of dependency on adults. How does infants’ social environment train them for a lifetime of varied social interactions? Our research focuses on the development of infants’ social skills through interactions with parents and others, and the mechanisms of this development.
Attention-sharing is a basic social behavior learned by infants,
and is the focus of much of our research. Attention-sharing helps us monitor and predict others’ actions, share experiences, coordinate and cooperate, and teach others. Infants start to emerge in shared attention by the end of their first year, but how do they learn these crucial behaviors? How, for example, do infants figure out that their parent sometimes looks at things that infants also find interesting or useful? Do infants know when parents are trying to to get their attention, or do infants simply repond to salient sights and sounds by orienting to them? At what age do babies start trying to get their parents’ attention, and what does this mean?
Brain activity of toddlers during social interactions...
…can shed light on ‘what develops’ during shared activities. New technologies are finally allowing neurosciences to study changes in brain physiology during ‘live’ social interactions, and our lab is at the forefront of extending these efforts to studying young children and parents. Brain development is intrinsically entwined with the development of social behaviors in infancy and childhood. Yet very little is know about brain dyamics in early social behaviors, or how these change with age. In collaboration with the Swartz Center for Computational Neuroscience, we carried out the first project to measure EEG of toddlers and parents while playing a turn-taking game. The results indicate some adult-like brain processes related to social information processing in children as young as 3 years.
Parents' behavior patterns are another focus of our research...
We conduct detailed analyses of parents’ everyday behaviors — looking, talking, making faces, using their hands — while interacting with infants. The pay-off for this laborious work is an emerging model – uniquely detailed and often surprising – of the ‘real’ social input that infants receive during everyday interactions. Our cognitive ethnography methods have generated a large longitudinal database of hand-coded infant-parent behaviors, and queries to search for time-series and sequential patterns in the database. These patterns can be represented as a sort of “operating system” for interacting with infants. But what’s really fascinating is that different parents have somewhat distinct ‘operating systems,” and of course their action patterns are not static – they are influenced by infants’ age and abilities, as well as mood and other contextual variables. Our goal is eventually to understand how all of these factors combine to yield the (deceptively) simple, charming interactions that happen, unremarkably, in everyday infant-parent activities.
What gets infants' attention?
People and things. (Especially, it seems, people using things!) But there is a broader question here: how do infants control their attention in complex environments? In what circumstances do people’s actions (words, gestures) draw infants’ attention, and when do infants attend to other stimuli like objects of videos? How do factors such as infants’ emotional state (e.g., stress) influence their attention to caregivers? We are trying to understand basic questions such as these, dealing with how infants select and encode information – social and non-social – in complex, dynamic environments…in the ‘real world.’