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Card Index: Joint Attention

Why do we shift our gaze to where the other person is looking?

ISTOCK // undefined Kiranshastry from flaticon.com

As a rule, people look immediately and automatically in the same direction when their companion or someone nearby suddenly turns their attention. And it seems rather obvious. In fact, joint attention is an ability that helps people in many areas, such as communication, collaborative activities, etc. But sometimes a person can be deprived of it. We analyse this phenomenon — what is joint visual attention, cases in which this mental function can be disrupted, and what remains a mystery for scientists — in IQ Card Index with the help of HSE researchers Tatiana Shevel and Maria Falikman.

What is joint attention?

Joint attention is the ability to focus the attention of two or more people on one object. On the one hand, it implies the ability to localize the object of another person's attention, while on the other — the ability to attract his or her attention to an object in the field of view or beyond. Joint attention can be visual, auditory, or gestural.

Can we define visual joint attention?

Yes, of course. This is the ability to look where someone else is looking, to shift one’s gaze to the object of another person's attention.

What function does joint attention perform?

A person may not always notice significant elements of the environment. By using the other person's gaze, he draws attention to previously ignored, but potentially significant or interesting objects. This process is necessary for social skills such as cooperation and communication to develop, as well as for understanding the states and intentions of others. In addition, joint attention is an important factor in a child’s early speech development. An adult looks at an object and names it, while the child, in turn, correlates the object and its name.

Does the human eye, or rather, the features of its structure, play any role in joint attention?

Thanks to the contrast between the small dark iris and the white sclera, we can very quickly determine the direction of the other person’s gaze. Moreover, this contrast and the ratio of iris and sclera size may have an evolutionary basis. Humans are the only biological species with white sclera and a contrasting iris among all healthy beings.

However, recent studies have shown that great apes, in particular gorillas (70%), already have depigmentation of the sclera (closer to white). In another 7% of gorillas, the sclera reaches the same degree of depigmentation as in humans. Thus, the appearance of white sclera contrasting with the iris can be considered an evolutionarily advantageous feature of our species, contributing to communication and subsequently becoming the basis for the mechanism of joint attention.

At what age does a person develop the ability for joint attention?

It already begins to develop at six months. The level of joint attention development (successful following an adult's gaze) in six-month-old babies correlates with their vocabulary at 18 months, and joint attention at 20 months correlates with the mental abilities of a child at 3.5 years.

How does this ability change during individual development?

In the 1970s, scientists Jerome Bruner and Michael Scaife showed that joint attention improves during the first year of life (the percentage of children who move their gaze towards an object that an adult is looking at increases). By the age of one year, 100% of typically developing children are able to turn their gaze to the object of adult attention.

Another researcher, George Butterworth, identified three types of development of the joint attention mechanism:

The first type is ‘ecological’. At six months of age, a child is able to catch the eye and understand the direction of a significant adult’s gaze. But he still cannot determine the exact location of the object that the mother is looking at, especially if there are several objects along the sight.

The second type is ‘geometric’. A ‘superstructure’ develops over the preceding mechanism. At 9-12 months, the child is already able to determine the exact location of the object that the mother is looking at. However, the object should be in the baby’s field of view. During the ‘geometric’ stage, the child completes the mother's line of sight to the object and ‘calculates’ the necessary angle of gaze, which contributes to the correct object detection.

The third type is ‘representational’. The baby develops the ability to detect the object of an adult's attention outside of his or her field of view (for example, behind their back). At 18 months, children can already turn around in order to detect the stimulus, but at the same time they correctly identify the target object out of sight only if there are no other objects in the field of view.

What impact does the ability to share attention have on a child's development?

Many studies suggest that joint attention plays a key role in a child’s mental development and socialization. In fact, this can be seen as a concrete confirmation of the ideas of Lev Vygotsky and his cultural and historical psychology that development is based on mental functions divided between a child and an adult. Joint attention is an example of this divided function.

Psychologist Michael Tomasello develops Vygotsky's views and emphasizes that joint attention is based on the perception of another person as an ‘intentional agent’ who has their own intentions. When children begin to perceive others as ‘intentional agents’ they understand that they can selectively pay attention to certain aspects of the environment. Judging by some of Tomasello’s studies, this happens at the age of five.

Thanks to joint attention, the child learns to understand the desires and intentions of other people. The formed ability to joint attention marks the transition from natural (inherent in nature) to higher mental functions (culturally mediated). Moreover, joint attention works as a basis for joint activity of a child and an adult.

In what cases can the joint attention ability be impaired?

It has repeatedly been shown that the joint attention mechanism works less effectively in people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which is accompanied by a violation of social and communication skills. This happens due to the fact that people with ASD avoid direct eye contact or, according to newer data, are indifferent to the direction of another person's gaze and have difficulties using so-called ‘social prompts.’

Impaired joint attention ability in early childhood is one of the first signs of ASD and may be a criterion. Unlike typically developing children, children with ASD do not automatically shift their gaze to the object of another person's attention, which can cause delays in early speech and socio-emotional development.

Some authors believe that its initiation should rather be considered a specific mechanism of joint attention. Unlike sensitivity to the direction of another person’s attention, it more often implies social motivation. With high-functioning autism, the ability to respond to the other's attention focus may be formed with age, while the ability to initiate joint attention will remain impaired. Thus, even if a child with ASD learns to ‘respond to joint attention’, the mechanism itself in most cases is not fully formed and will require special intervention classes.

What mechanisms ensure the ability to share attention?

Scientists haven’t found a definitive answer to this question yet. On the one hand, the direction of view usually seems involuntary for both children and adults, while on the other hand, the act of joint attention works as the highest mental function and is social in origin.

It’s obvious that the starting point in the development of joint attention is sensitivity to the focus of another person's attention. The ability to encourage the other to focus attention is built on top of it. But the question remains open: to what extent is the basic mechanism of joint attention is ‘geometric’, and to what extent is it influenced by the current tasks of the subject and the context in which the interaction takes place?

After all, the joint attention mechanism is the basis for the ability to share common information and common goals when performing joint tasks, as well as to understand the intentions and desires of the other. Consequently, their interpretation can also become decisive when localizing the object of another person's attention.

What common viewpoints do scientists have on this matter?

As a compromise position, they proposed distinguishing ‘ascending’ and ‘descending’ joint attention. In the ‘ascending’ mechanism, the localization of the object of another person's attention is influenced by the direction of his gaze, the position of the body and the location of visually bright objects. While in the ‘descending’ mechanism, the key role is played by information about events that happened to another person and its interpretation, regardless of the visual brightness of objects in the field of view.

This distinction corresponds to Michael Tomasello's ideas about the "low — level" and "high — level" models of eye direction monitoring, where the "low-level" model refers to the tendency to look in the direction that others are looking, while the “high-level” refers to the understanding that others are looking there for a reason, and see something, i.e., the presence of a certain mental experience.

Research shows that the context of the situation must be understood in order to interpret the object of another person's attention in conditions of high load visual scene. The subjects in the experiments correctly identified the object of the other's attention if they knew the context of the communicative situation, regardless of the information about the direction of the gaze. Thus, joint attention can presumably have both an ascending (reflex), and descending (non-automatic, voluntary) mechanism.

Tell us about the scientific experiments conducted in the field of joint attention.

Since the late 1990s, the so-called "gaze cueing paradigm" has been used as a laboratory model of joint attention. This is an adapted technique of spatial prompting in which the direction of a person's gaze (for example, depicted in a photograph) or a schematic representation of human eyes looking towards the object of attention is used as a prompting stimulus.

Does the ability to perform joint attention differ depending on the situation and the individual characteristics of the observer?

Attribution of intentions to the one who gives a hint with a glance, as well as the features of these intentions affect the effect of a gaze cue hint. For example, redirecting attention at the prompt of a person who is evaluating us is carried out differently than at the prompt of a person who is helping us.

In addition, individual characteristics of the observer influence this effect. It therefore turns out that the gender of the observer is important: the effect is more pronounced among women. This is associated with a tendency toward empathy, which is more developed in women. Finally, a recent study has shown that the parameters of the cue effect are influenced by the higher or lower social status of the partner relative to the observer.

How can research in the field of joint attention be applied in practice?

It is necessary to develop strategies to help people with joint attention disorders. We have the opportunity to increase the effectiveness of their communication, training and solving practical problems. In addition, such research can be useful in developing various digital assistants and virtual agents that are actively used now in training, business, and even psychological support in digital environments.


Авторы исследования:
Tatiana Shevel, Research Assistant at the HSE Laboratory for Cognitive Research
Maria Falikman, professor of the HSE School of Psychology, Leading Research Fellow at the HSE Laboratory for Cognitive Research
Author: Marina Selina, July 25, 2022