Shared attention

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Chapter 12 endnote 9, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:

...caregivers also guide the infant’s attention to things of interest in the world. He follows their gaze to an object (say, a lamp), then they look at him, then at the lamp again, and talk about what he is looking at. They say the word “lamp” to him with intent, alerting and orienting him with a “baby talk” tone of voice. [...] The infant and her caregiver are sharing attention.

Shared attention and joint attention both involve two people (e.g., an infant and an adult) coordinating attention on an object or event in the world, plus an understanding that they are both interested in the same thing. These abilities develop rapidly, beginning around three months of age. This sort of social attention is more than just looking at the same object (shared gaze) — it is more like a conversation between two people, often without words, using gaze and sometimes pointing. There are many other ways to share attention as well, such as by touch.[1][2]

Shared and joint attention are critical for developing concepts and regulating the infant’s body budget. As caregivers use words to name the things of interest, the infant brain more easily learns concepts that later become predictions. Connectivity between the amygdala and body-budgeting regions in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (along the uncinate fasciculus, which is a bundle of axons) in six-month-old infants predicts the ability to engage in joint attention at nine-months of age.[3] These dynamics not only contribute to the development of the default mode and control networks, but also to the sensory networks themselves. For example, expanding an infant’s affective niche with attentional cuing helps the visual system to develop.[4]

Macaque monkeys and chimpanzees do not appear to share attention with one another, but dogs may have the basis for sharing attention with their owners.[5][6]


Notes on the Notes

  1. Akhtar, Nameera and Morton Ann Gernsbacher. 2007. "On privileging the role of gaze in infant social cognition." Child Development Perspectives 2 (2): 59-65.
  2. Yu, Chen and Linda B. Smith. 2013. "Joint Attention without Gaze Following: Human Infants and Their Parents Coordinate Visual Attention to Objects through Eye-Hand Coordination." PLoS ONE 8 (11): e79659.
  3. Elison, Jed T., Jason J. Wolff, Debra C. Heimer, Sarah J. Paterson, Hongbin Gu, Heather C. Hazlett, Martin Styner, Guido Gerig, and Joseph Piven. 2013. "Frontolimbic neural circuitry at 6 months predicts individual differences in joint attention at 9 months. Developmental Science 16 (2):186–197
  4. Amso, Dima, and Gaia Scerif. 2015. “The Attentive Brain: Insights from Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 16 (10): 606–619.
  5. Miklósi, Ádám, Enikö Kubinyi, József Topál, Márta Gácsi, Zsófia Virányi, and Vilmos Csányi. 2003. "A Simple Reason for a Big Difference: Wolves Do Not Look Back at Humans, but Dogs Do." Current Biology 13 (9): 763-766.
  6. Téglás, Ernő, Anna Gergely, Krisztina Kupán, Ádám Miklósi, and József Topál. 2012. "Dogs’ Gaze Following Is Tuned to Human Communicative Signals." Current Biology 22 (3): 209-212.