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#freshfromthelab. Mitsuhiko Ishikawa on eye gaze and joint attention in the social development of babies.

Mitsuhiko Ishikawa is a cognitive neuroscientist from Kyoto University. He is interested in eye gaze of infants and how this affects them and their experience in their surrounding environment. His studies ‘joint attention’ and how this is important to develop social skills.

Eye gaze is key to helping your baby to develop socially. In everyday life, being able to process eye gaze is a crucial way that babies learn about important and relevant things in their environment, known as ‘social learning’.

Adults use eye gaze to indicate something they are interested in or paying attention to. When another person follows this gaze, this is known as ‘joint attention’. This is a social experience, where people can show mutual interest in something in their shared environment without using language. The non-verbal nature of eye gaze makes it very important for your baby, as it is a vital way for babies to communicate needs and share interests with adults, especially when your baby cannot yet communicate with the world in many other ways!

Mitsuhiko Ishikawa, uses joint attention in his research to investigate what might affect 9 and 10-month old’s eye gaze. He found that other people’s gaze direction, as well as whether the gaze is towards another human, influences where babies will look.

In one of his studies, the babies watched an actress who was either moving her eye gaze towards another person (creating joint attention) or away from the person (no joint attention). The researchers used an eye-tracking device to measure where the babies were looking and for how long.

In psychological and neuroscientific studies, researchers measure how long babies look at a screen or person as an indication of their interest. (For more information about how researchers use looking time analyses click here).

The results of the study showed that these babies looked longer at the actress who looked away from the other person. Mitsuhiko Ishikawa suggested that the reason infants look longer at the no joint attention situation is that they already understand that in social situations (ie. where there are two people or more) people normally look towards another person’s face. Therefore, babies looked longer because the situation in the study violated their expectations of social human behaviour, even at this very young age!

Joint attention is important for babies’ social skills, developing the ability to coordinate attention with a social partner is fundamental to their future aptitude for learning, language and social relationships. For example, check out this video demonstrates the role of eye gaze in joint attention and development of learning languages.

When babies are starting to learn language, joint attention helps them to learn basic words through processes such as eye gaze following and following pointing. For example, pointing and looking at a dog running around in the garden, directs a baby’s attention or eye-gaze to the most salient or eye-catching thing that the baby can see. Indicating the ‘common reference’ you want to share with your baby, while talking and using descriptive words such as ‘dog’ and ‘running’, allows the baby to begin to link the ‘thing moving around in the environment’ (the dog!), with specific words and actions, and so begins to link language to their surroundings.

This research shows that babies as young as 9 months understand how eye gaze is used for joint attention in human interactions and that another person’s gaze can influence where babies look. Additionally, joint attention is vital for social development in processes such as language learning and social relationships.

Author: Ceri Peck

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