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  • 2022KidbyPhD

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Interactive brains: How infant cognition interacts with the dynamic social world

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

Publication date2022
Number of pages346
Awarding Institution
  • Lancaster University
<mark>Original language</mark>English


Research taking a cognitive neuroscience approach has shed light on social cognition during infancy. These studies have provided invaluable knowledge about how infants process social information, but a number of concepts regarding infant social cognition are often discussed based on research utilising rigidly controlled experimental paradigms where the role of infants is typically passive as an observer of stimuli. Increasing evidence suggests differences between the social cognitive processes that occurs when we act as observers of others (a ‘third-person’ perspective) and the processes that emerge when we are actively engaging with other people in an interactional context (a ‘second-person’ perspective) (e.g., Redcay and Schilbach, 2019; Siposova & Carpenter, 2019). Accordingly, there has been a growing recognition that we need a ‘second-person’ perspective, as compared to conventional “third-person” approach.

The aim of the current thesis is to explore the interplay between infant cognition and the social world surrounding them, by moving research settings to a more naturalistic and dynamic one where infants are positioned as part of interaction. Towards this goal, Study 1 (Chapter 2) reviewed the current progress of “second-person” neuroscience research to evaluate the validity and robustness of simultaneous dual brain scanning techniques, often referred to as hyperscanning. The review identified large heterogeneity in reported effect sizes between published studies, suggesting the need to improve comparability of research, such as establishing standardised methods or promoting open science practices including code and data sharing to achieve higher reproducibility. This thesis then turned to research using various techniques from a conventional screen-based paradigm to a more dynamic setting, with the aim of building a stable platform towards second-person cognitive neuroscience approaches that investigate infant cognition while the infant actively interacts with other people. Study 2 (Chapter 3) explored how infants encode information differently from two adults who give gaze cues to a target object with different levels of accuracy. Whilst the study utilised a conventional event-related potential paradigm using screen-based stimuli, this paradigm could be adapted to enable future studies to investigate how infants’ social cognitive ability to discriminate reliable and unreliable informants can inform their subsequent behaviour observed in a social interactional behavioural task. Study 3 (Chapter 4) moved towards the use of more dynamic video stimuli and explored the neural processing of unexpected events. The study identified challenges in using dynamic perceptual inputs as stimuli. Study 4 (Chapter 5) transitioned into more naturalistic social contexts and analysed infant cognition while 10-month-old infants were faced with an adult demonstrating novel object labels in a live interaction. The study not only showed the feasibility of second-person neuroscientific research with infant participants, but also advanced our knowledge about infant word learning a step further, and demonstrated the trajectory from the encoding of semantic word information to its consolidation as knowledge. Study 5 (Chapter 6) also utilised a naturalistic interactional setting where infants were able to actively engage in a social task with an experimenter in a live manner, and aimed to identify systematic differences in neural activity between 9-month-old infants who make perseverative errors originally reported by Piaget (1954) and those who do not. This study was, to our knowledge, the first of its kind to validate the feasibility of utilising neurophysiological measures in this traditional interactive behavioural paradigm, in such a way that it does not interfere with the standard procedure.

This thesis produced a series of studies which jointly demonstrate the potential for conducting research in a more dynamic setting that investigates infant social cognition taking a ‘second-person’ cognitive neuroscience approach to advance our knowledge about the intricate interaction between infant cognition, behaviour and the environment. We conclude this thesis by addressing the challenges of such an approach, to which we also attempt to propose solutions, as well as discussing future directions for the field.