July 25, 2012

Genius Infants: They Know What You Mean

By: Erika Dunayer, Ivanhoe Health Correspondent

(Ivanhoe Newswire) — Think you can hide things from your children just because they don´t speak yet? Think again! Researchers are proving that babies know what your intentions are even though they can´t vocalize it. A new study sheds light on how early in life we can rely on language to acquire knowledge about matters that go beyond first hand experiences.

In previous research it has been established that infants seem to understand that speech can be used to categorize and communicate about observable entities such as objects and people. But no study has directly examined whether infants recognize that speech can communicate about unobservable aspects, until now.

"The area of research that we focus on is language acquisition and development of communication, we´ve been interested for many years how infants listen to speech sounds and how they pick out speech from other sounds in the world and if these things help them in learning language. We wanted to see if listening to speech and different sounds would mean that they could learn things about how speech work," Athena Vouloumanos, as assistant professor at NYU and one of the study´s co-authors told Ivanhoe.

In the Proceedings of National Academy of Science study, the researchers sought to determine if one-year-old infants could recognize that speech can communicate about one unobservable phenomenon that is crucial for understanding social interactions: a person's intentions. To explore this question, the researchers had adults act out short scenarios for the infants.

"What we did was act out a play for the infants, and we acted out different versions of the play that had different endings. Some endings made sense, those are the congruent endings, while others were surprising or difficult to understand, those are the incongruent endings. We wanted to compare their reactions to the congruent endings as opposed to those with non-congruent endings," Athena added.

"In the first couple of scenes we introduced an actor who is attempting to stack a ring on a funnel. She tries, but she fails because the funnel is just out of her reach. The kids see the behavior of her trying to stack and from this they have to infer that the intention is not to try to stack, but to actually stack the ring on the funnel. They never actually see that scene of a person successfully stacking the ring on the funnel though," Athena continued.

Previous research showed that infants would interpret the actor's failed behavior as signaling the actor's underlying intention to stack the ring. After the first scene, the experimenters introduced a second actor who was able to reach all the objects. In the key test scene, the communicator turned to the recipient and uttered either a novel word unknown to infants ("koba") or coughed.

Although infants always knew the communicator's intention (through observing her prior failed stacking attempts), the recipient only sometimes had the requisite information to accomplish the communicator's intended action—specifically, when the communicator vocalized appropriately using speech, but not when she coughed.

"They understand the intention even though they have only heard the speech and never actually seen the action done successfully. The most surprising thing was that at only 12 months old, the kids could actually understand that people can use speech to communicate intentions," Athena told Ivanhoe.

The infants looked longer when the recipient performed a different action, such as imitating the communicators' prior failed movements or stacking the ring somewhere other than on the funnel, suggesting they treated these as incongruent, or surprising, outcomes. Because coughing doesn't communicate intentions, infants looked equally no matter what the recipient's response was.

Source: Interview with Athena Vouloumanos, July 23, 2012.