Exciting Findings Emerging from UC San Diego's Cognitive Development Lab

What goes on in the mind of an infant? 
How do infants learn new words and social skills?

UCSD Cognitive Development LabThese are some of the questions The Cognitive Development Lab at UC San Diego attempts to address. The lab, directed by TDLC investigator Dr. Gedeon Deák, conducts cutting edge research on cognitive, language, and social development in infants and children. They have uncovered some surprising results that have the potential to change views in their field. For example, in a recent TDLC-supported study, headed by former UC San Diego graduate student and TDLC trainee Kaya de Barbaro, the team discover a novel way of thinking about how infants learn to participate in social interactions.

Babies Learn to Coordinate Gaze and Motor activity to Become Better Social Partners
The end of an infants’ first year brings a watershed of new social activities, including shared object games such as stack-and-topple, peek-a-boo, and imitation. Developmental scientists have shown that these games – or joint object activities- are important contexts for learning. Whereas scientists in past decades hypothesized that infants need to “read minds” to be able to play with their parents, recent data shows that developing sensorimotor systems — that is, the coordination of looking, body position, and the hands and arms for reaching and manipulating objects — have important consequences for social interactions.

CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 95 In Dr. de Barbaro's study recently published in Child Development1, the team tracked the moment-to-moment actions of infants and parents engaged in playing with toys (actions as specific as single shifts in gaze, or touching a toy for a fraction of a second). They found that changes in infants’ eye-hand coordination corresponded to, and predicted, how infants engaged in object play with their parents. The researchers observed the same group of infants at home with their parents several times, between 4 and 12 months of age. The data revealed that even very young infants participate actively in coordinated object play with their parents — contrary to conventional wisdom. In fact, four month old infants spent almost 50% of their time looking at and touching objects with their parents.

So, what changed as infants got older wasn’t social sharing of object-based attention. Rather, as infants got older they incorporated multiple objects into their play. Before 6 months, infants’ gaze and hands were typically focused on a single object, for long periods of time. Older infants were much more likely to look at or touch more than one object at a time and to rapidly shift attention between the objects. This allowed them to direct some attention to their parents’ object activity, while still playing with other objects. By smoothly distributing their attention between objects in their parents’ hands, and objects in their own hands, infants could start to engage in more sophisticated, later-emerging forms of play, such as imitation and extended activities such as stacking and toppling blocks.

This research suggests a novel way of thinking about how infants learn to participate in social interactions: Expanding sensorimotor skills open the doors for more elaborate social games. Unlike older theories that posited innate “mind-reading” skills, these findings suggest that infants’ day-to-day experiences and slow-growing physical skills are crucial for coordinating their actions to interact effectively with adults.

Continuing Research
Lucas ChangWhile Dr. Kaya de Barbaro has taken a research faculty position at Georgia Institute of Technology this Fall, similar research is continuing on at UC San Diego's Cognitive Development Lab. Current graduate student Lucas Chang is looking at language interactions between parents and infants from 4 to 9 months of age. In his recent study, for example, he found that 1) Infants' various actions tended to predict both the timing and the content of parents' speech, and 2) As infants get older and better at handling multiple toys and shifting attention, parents named the toys more often - but especially at certain times, like when infants picked up a second toy. These associations between parent's object-naming comments, and infants' actions, could help infants build their vocabulary and make sense of adults' intended meanings.

Dr. Gedeon Deák and his team in The Cognitive Development Lab continue to pave the way in their field. Their diverse research delves into everything from infant social learning, social attention, and communication, to cognitive control and flexible thinking, language learning and reasoning about abstract concepts. Thanks to the group's work, we have a better understanding of what really does go on in the mind of an infant!

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About Dr. Kaya de Barbaro
Dr. Kaya de Barbaro came to UC San Diego with a background in cognitive science and artificial intelligence. She completed her Ph.D. in the Cognitive Science Departmen at UC San Diego, working with Dr. Gedeon Deak and Dr. Christine Johnson. She studies high-density temporal dynamics of bio-behavioral activity, focusing on patterns of attention and arousalin early social interactions. For example, she tracks moment-by-moment changes in looking and touching activities and their dynamic relations to measures of infant arousal. Following her Ph.D., Dr. de Barbaro completed a postdoc at the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, UK. She currently has a research faculty position at the School of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Kaya’s ongoing work continues to be strongly aligned with TDLC. In fact, she explains that her exposure through TDLC to computer scientists studying social interaction – and their interest in the dynamics of learning - has allowed her to bring very unique methods to studying questions in developmental science. Her ties to TDLC "really opened up new possibilities for doing work on development and social interactions, and gave me an opportunity to bring together groups of researchers with different skillsets."



1. de Barbaro, K., Johnson, C.M., Forster, D. Deák, G.O. (2015). Sensorimotor Decoupling Contributes to Triadic Attention: A Longitudinal Investigation of Mother-Infant-Object Interactions. Child Development. Child Development; 2015 Nov 27. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12464. [Epub ahead of print]

Paper Abstract: Sensorimotor Decoupling Contributes to Triadic Attention: A Longitudinal Investigation of Mother-Infant-Object Interactions
Previous developmental accounts of joint object activity identify a qualitative "shift" around 9-12 months. In a longitudinal study of 26 dyads, videos of joint object interactions at 4, 6, 9, and 12 months were coded for all targets of gaze and manual activity (at 10 Hz). At 12 months, infants distribute their sensorimotor modalities between objects handled by the parent and others controlled by the infant. Analyses reveal novel trajectories in distributed joint object activity across the 1st year. At 4 months, infants predominantly look at and manipulate a single object, typically held by their mothers. Between 6 and 9 months, infants increasingly decouple their visual and haptic modalities and distribute their attention between objects held by their mothers and by themselves. These previously unreported developments in the distribution of multimodal object activity might "bridge the gap" to coordinated joint activity between 6 and 12 months.