April 2013

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Learning from the eyes of others

Gaze following has been shown to be associated with language development. Brooks & Meltzoff [1] tested infants at nine, ten and eleven months old in either an open eyed paradigm where the experimenter establishes eye contact with the child and then orientated their head to an object, or a closed eye condition where the experimenter’s eyes were closed during the head turn towards the object. Results showed that at nine, ten and eleven months infants followed the gaze of the experimenter more often in the open eyes condition, although more errors were made at nine months old. A follow up showed that infants who vocalized during the experiment had a significantly more complex array of vocabulary and gestures at eighteen months. Brooks & Meltzoff concluded by arguing that at nine months the child follows gaze in a simplistic manner, regardless of eyes open or eyes closed condition. However, post nine months the infant becomes more tuned in to the intention of other individuals and follows gaze significantly more often when the experimenter’s eyes are open, suggesting that even at a pre-linguistic age infants are making a psychological attribution to another individual.

[2] presented children with two toys and gave the infant one of these toys to interact with, the experimenter then said “this is moldi” whilst looking at the toy the child was not interacting with. After the experiment, and when the child was asked which toy is moldi, they could identify the correct toy. In a follow up study Baldwin et al (1996) changed the experimental paradigm, as the infant interacted with the toy they heard a voice from outside the room saying “that is a dawnoo.” In this condition, when asked after the experiment infants could not identify the dawnoo. Thus it appears that the importance of learning the names of the previously unnamed stimuli was the gaze of the adult. These findings led Baldwin to conclude that gaze following may help infants learn new words and subsequently accelerate language development.

However, we can only extrapolate so much from these studies. Firstly, we must remember that an individual’s culture can determine how much eye contact they are exposed to in infancy. In a series of two studies [3] showed that infants engage with their mothers in a way that reflects their cultural norms. For example, in their first study, mothers from Boston and the Gusii community in Kenya were observed in their natural environment. Results showed that Gusii mothers spent significantly more time touching and holding their infants, whereas Boston mothers were much more inclined to make eye contact with their children. In addition, Gusii mothers were significantly more likely to look away from their infants when they showed signs of excitement. Moreover in cultures were infants are held more often, the infant begins to anticipate the posture of their caregiver and this may be as important as what gaze following is in another culture (Bril & Sabatier, 1986). These results are interesting for two reasons. Firstly, they emphasise the criticism expressed earlier that data from eye gazing studies is usually only applied to a particular subsample (white, middleclass children), leaving researchers unable to generalise their results to larger populations, especially across cultures. Secondly, these results lead to the argument that touching and holding the infant in one culture can be just as important as gaze following in another.

In another cross-cultural study Bornstein et al [4] compared mother-infant interactions across three cities; New York, Paris and Japan. Interestingly, across all three locales a subset of interactions were similar, mothers responded to their infant’s desire to explore the environment in an encouraging way, in times of no distress, mothers enjoyed proto-conversations, and in times of distress mothers from all three locales responded sympathetically to their infant’s needs. Nevertheless,differenceswere found, mothers from Japan did not make eye contact with their infants as frequently as the other two groups. Even so, Japanese children still develop competent language, theory of mind and social understanding skills thus, it could be argued that the results of gaze following studies can only explain so much in the complex developmental process that every child goes through and the attention that the development of gaze following has received may be unjustified and has also taken the importance away from other behaviors which may be just as important, if not more so.

In conclusion, gaze following has been extensively studied and correlated important milestones in development. However, it has also been shown that these detailed studies are severely limited. Moreover, researchers have begun to show that other developmental phenomena may just be as important as gaze following and deserve to be studied as extensively. Parental posture in one culture may be just as important as gaze following in another. Of course, this is not to say that the results are gaze following studies should be disregarded or that they are frivolous. However, the studies looked at here suggest gaze following may be not be as important as it was originally thought to be.


[1] Brooks, R., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2005). The development of gaze following and its relation to language. Developmental Science, 8(6), 535-543.

[2] Baldwin, D.A., Markman, E. M., Bill, B., Desjardins, R. N., Irwin, J.M., & Tidball, G. (1996). Infants’ reliance on a social criterion for establishing word–object relations. Child Development, 67 (6), 3135–3153.

[3] Richman, A. L., Miller, P. M., & LeVine, R. A. (1992). Cultural and educational variations in maternal responsiveness. Developmental Psychology, 28, 614–621.

[4] Bornstein, M. H., Tamis-LeMonda, C. S., Pecheux, M., & Rahn, C. W. (1991). Mother and infant activity and interaction in France and the United States: A comparative study. International Journal of Behavioural Development, 14(1), 21- 41.


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