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Project Descriptions: Cognitive Development

The influence of verbal information on 18- and 24-month-olds' action understanding

For toddlers, in order to learn something about their surrounding world, a good strategy is to communicate with experienced caregivers. Successful communication comprises understanding spoken language as well as action-understanding. When a caregiver demonstrates a new action to the toddler, he or she will likely show the new action combined with language instead of showing the action in isolation. New, unknown actions and linguistic information, therefore, often occur simultaneously in toddlers' everyday life. There is recent evidence in developmental research that the two domains – the language domain and the action domain – interact with each other and are not independent (Fukuyama & Yamakoshi, 2013; Matatyaho-Bullaro, Gogate, Mason, Cadavid & Abdel-Mottaleb, 2014). The way in which toddlers use and integrate information of both domains, however, is not yet fully understood.

The goal of our project is to investigate the influence of verbal cues during action demonstration on toddlers' action understanding. The relevance of this research question stems from the fact that action understanding is one of the prerequisites for social interaction or learning of new abilities in childhood. Therefore, deeper knowledge about the complex processes is important in order to get a better understanding about the influencing factors in early social cognition.

In imitation studies, 18 to 24 month-old toddlers are presented with demonstrations of unknown actions on new objects. The amount of verbal information is varied between conditions, and after action demonstration, toddlers have the opportunity to act on the objects themselves. Based on their imitative behavior, we hope to derive in which way the toddlers encoded, processed, remembered and reproduced the actions they have seen.

Investigators: Prof. Dr. Birgit Elsner, Dipl.-Psych. Maurits Adam
Funded by: German Research Foundation, DFG (FOR 2253, TP 3)

Perception of boundary cues in speech and action: parallels in chunking continuous information streams?

We know that children are skilled at breaking information down into more manageable pieces. To do this, children need to be able to chunk information together, instead of dealing with each piece of information individually. This allows children to process information more quickly and efficiently. For example, rather than process the following syllables "BAY" and "BEE" as separate units, children learn that they belong together, and form the word "baby". We are interested in how children learn which units belong together, and which units should be kept separate. We want to take the novel approach of examining whether children chunk other types of information in the same way as they chunk speech. To do this, we want to examine how children perceive sequences of actions, so that we can understand whether children chunk these sequences in the same was as they do sentences. 

The influence of social-pragmatic cues on infants' action processing and reproduction

This project focuses on the influence of social-pragmatic cues on infant action processing and production. One part of this project deals with how emotions can impact infants own behavior regulation. In imitation studies infants of different age groups are faced with a model who performs two differentially emoted (positive vs. negative) actions on a novel object consecutively. We are interested in whether infants regulate their own imitative behavior as a function of the emotional displays.

Another part of this project focuses on when and how infants come to understand that verbal cues cannot only refer to objects or persons but also to mental states, like action intentions. In imitation studies, infants of different age groups are faced with an adult who first announces to perform a certain object-directed action and then performs an action that either matches or mismatches the prior action announcement. We are especially interested in how infants deal with the incongruent situation that is when there is a conflict between speech and action cue. Which cue due they favour when they are given the opportunity to act on the object themselves? To complement this research, we also run EEG and eye tracking studies to identify indicators of infants’ conflict detection. 

The Development of Tool Use in Toddlers

Humans use tools in several ways – not only in the workshop or the garden, but also for eating, speaking on the phone or writing. Not only do infants begin using tools very early in development, they are also remarkably quick in learning how to handle them. In a series of studies we investigate how infants at the age of two years use tools: What learning strategies do they apply, on which information do they rely, what impact do adults have as role models? Furthermore, we are interested in whether infants are able to transfer acquired knowledge about tool use to other situations and if so, how? It is likely that this kind of transfer is modulated by the original learning context as well as the characteristics of the tools. Since age or prior experience with tools might also affect the transfer pre-school children are considered in our research.