Interaction Between Attention and Language Systems in Humans: A Cognitive Science Perspective

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This paper will discuss one of the components of social cognition that is necessary to perform well, both on verbal and non-verbal social interactions, namely the capacity of joint attention. Research findings suggest that joint attention is an irreplaceable skill in human development for both social cognition and language acquisition. This paper will discuss the different components of joint attention and their meaning for human social interactions, as well as the neurological underpinnings involved in the establishment of joint attention studied by neuropsychological research. The relevance of joint attention for social cognition.

As children learn and adapt to their surrounding physical and social world, special cognitive capabilities are necessary to promote rapid individual progress in learning the essential skills necessary for coping well with life.

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One crucial element of social interaction is joint attention. Frith and Frith defined joint attention as a means of sharing representations of the world, by allocating attention away from an item of interest to one observed by another person. This type of attentional shift is highly advantageous in promoting rapid learning, as the repertoire of experienced events grows exponentially when attending to discoveries made by others.

From this point of view, joint attention is related to empathy, since the sharing of representational worlds benefits and promotes the development and sustenance of empathy: the ability to understand and resonate with the emotional experience of another human being, thus making it possible to share feelings Purves et al. This model states that two individuals can align their perceptual perspective of the world, thereby creating a common background vital for the exchange of information.

As infants master the ability to respond to joint attention bids made by their caregivers, they can expose themselves to rich information sources from the social environment, and can make large improvements in learning new concepts, especially for socially relevant knowledge Paterson, Heim, Friedman, Choudhury, Benasich, Besides opening an information gate between two individuals, joint attention can give the means to the person to infer behavioural goals of someone else, and to make predictions of possible actions made by that person.

This form of joint attention and joint behavioural effort is mainly mediated by a set of neuronal circuits in the brain, called the mirror neuron system, which will be discussed below. The neurological mechanisms of joint attention: the mirror neuron system. When two individuals align their gaze, they create a shared context for social interaction. Paterson and colleagues made a distinction between initiating joint attention and responding to joint attention efforts.

They posed that different neural circuits underlie these two varieties of joint attention. According to them Paterson et al. These two areas are also implied in sharing many other functions, with the dorsolateral cortex playing a main role in executive control systems, attentional control systems, decision making, and working memory Purves et al. The medial prefrontal cortex, often in combination with activation of other functional areas in the limbic system e. On the other hand, creating a response to joint attention bids seems to involve parietal networks, mainly involved in attentional domains of functioning.

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This attentional shift seems to be the result of a synergistic relationship between left and right parietal areas, probably the medial parietal cortices Paterson et al. However, it is important to note that, in joint attention, the frontal regions of the brain play a vital role. Research by Paterson and colleagues showed that as an infant gets older, brain regions involved in joint attention shift from posterior to more anterior regions of the brain, suggesting a clear form of specialization and maturation of neural structures. Frontal areas are more involved in attentional control, granting the child a higher social competence with respect to joint attention bids.

The brain mechanism that underlies the features of social interaction involved in joint attention is called the mirror neuron system. Sebanz, Bekkering and Knoblich found that mirror neuron-generated motor activation often occurs during the observation of a performed action, implying the role of this neural system in action prediction and in the appropriate response generation.

Another part of the mirror neuron system is located in regions of the limbic system, called the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex. The anterior cingulate cortex has an important role in pain perception, which makes this area, together with the insula, a key region for emotional experience. Therefore it is believed that the mirror neuron system together with areas in the prefrontal cortex that have shown to be important in the initiation of joint attention holds a share in the development and expression of empathetic responses towards other individuals.

For instance, Dominey and Dodane suggested that joint attention mechanisms can be used to interpret emotional messages conveyed by referential cues in eye gaze and body-orientation, and this behaviour is already present in infants ranging from 12 to 18 months old. Thus, from these findings, a link between shared attention, emotions and feelings, inferences of goals and successful performance in interpersonal situations can be seen, with respect to the involvement of the mirror neuron system. As fluent speech production is related to movements and gestures, the role of movement imitation becomes apparent when discussing speech acquisition.

Thus, the role of the mirror neuron system is fundamental as human infants, using perception-action links, mimic and learn facial motor behaviours involved in speech. The role of joint attention in language development. According to Purves and colleagues , the matter of language lateralization in the two hemispheres of the brain can be seen as such: the left hemisphere mediates the ability to comprehend and produce speech, while the right hemisphere has the propensity of giving emotional value to the comprehension and production of speech Purves et al, This lateralization is evident in practically all right-handed people, where brain specialization for the production and comprehension of language is mostly found in the left hemisphere; in left-handed people, it is more common to find language lateralization either in the right hemisphere, or subdivided over both hemispheres Anderson, Nevertheless, it is important to note that the higher cognitive faculty related to language relies on a dispersed neural system, consisting of multiple neural networks that interact to generate the different components e.

These networks are present in both hemispheres, but are involved in different specializations of approximately the same language processing mechanisms Purves et al. Thus, one cannot speak of true hemispheric localization related to language, but merely of dispersed specializations that take place bilaterally or unilaterally within one hemisphere in the brain.

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It is important to note, however, that language associated networks do not store information about the production and comprehension of speech in the form of words or actions , but rather in the form of meaningful activation patterns within these networks. These activation patterns are then translated into the understanding of concepts objects — nouns, or actions — verbs by forming communication-relevant associations with attended environmental stimuli.

As can be seen in previous sections, the foundations of joint attention lie in the coordination of visual attention between two individuals, and are already being established in infancy. The ability to respond to joint attention bids and the skill to initiate joint attention are predictive measures of early language development Paterson et al. Mundy and Gomes found that taking initiative in joint attention is a significant predictor of developments in expressive language and responding to joint attention is related to developments in receptive language, during the second year of life.

According to Dominey and Dodane , the initiation of joint attention by caregivers is paired with the use of child-directed speech, to draw the attention of the infant to relevant aspects of the speech, as well as relevant aspects of the situation. Other members of society provide vast sources of information that may benefit the individual enormously, as experience can be transmitted preventing some trial-and-error effort.

The shared world that is created when two people establish joint attention is therefore one of the most important ways to promote early and thorough learning. To summarize, the mechanism of joint attention is subdivided into initiating and responding to joint attention bids, with different brain neural circuits supporting development and expression of these skills. Joint attention creates a shared contextual world that promotes unidirectional or multidirectional learning for the individuals involved.

This neuron system is therefore pivotal in modelling learning and imitation, as well as in perspective taking and empathy. There is evidence that in infants the competence in responding to joint attention bids is related to better language acquisition of both expressive and receptive language.

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Therefore the development of joint attention proficiency seems to lead directly to higher individual skills in social interaction. Anderson, J. BCS Signed Language Structure— An examination of signed languages and the cognitive constraints that shape them, through a detailed consideration of the structure of American Sign Language and other natural signed languages of the world. Includes training in sign language notation and analysis. BCS Language and the Brain — This course will examine how the comprehension and production of language is implemented in the human brain.

We will also explore new fMRI analysis methods and experimental designs that could be suitable for addressing these questions. BCS Topics in Understanding Language — This seminar will focus on selected topics in language processing, for graduate students and faculty in the language sciences.

The specific topic for a particular year will be announced. BCS Sign Language Universals and Typology — Crosslinguistic comparisons among signed languages, considering the possible linguistic universals for signed languages, the degree and types of variation among different signed languages, the ways in which universals and language specific variation for signed languages may compare and contrast to those for spoken languages, and the visual, motoric, and cognitive constraints which may give rise to these phenomena. BCS Sign Language Psycholinguistics and Acquisition— Consideration of the processing, historical development, and acquisition of signed languages, with an interest in the ways that language processing, development, and evolution may affect language structure.

BCS Music and Language— This course will explore relationships between musical and linguistic structure. We will also discuss experimental work on prosodic structure in language and on music acquisition in infants. Co-taught by a music theorist and linguist, the course will review basic aspects of phonology, intonational phonology, meter, and memory that are relevant to music. Each student will complete a piece of original research in the form of a term paper and class presentation. Permission of instructor required for non-Eastman students.

BCS Sensory Systems — An introduction to the functioning of the senses and the physiological mechanisms underlying them. Topics include vision, audition, somatosensation, the vestibular system, gustation and olfaction, with an emphasis on the general principles that govern mammalian sensory systems. Topics covered include the perception of motion, depth, surfaces, pattern and object perception, eye movements, motor planning and organization, and attention. BCS Instrumentation and Methods for Vision Research— This course describes the design, construction, and operation of optical instrumentation used in modern vision research.

We discuss techniques to deliver visual and auditory stimuli and to measure visual performance in human subjects, animal subjects, and single neurons. Examples of topics covered include display calibration, light measurement, computer control of experiments, eye tracking techniques, virtual environments, and brain imaging. Considers research from a diverse range of perspectives including behavioral research, cognitive neuroscience, studies of individual differences, and research that adopts a comparative perspective.

BCS Multisensory Processing. In previous years topics have included motion perception, stereopsis, color vision and visuo-motor control.

BCS Neural Plasticity in Learning and Development — An examination of neural plasticity in development as well as in adult learning and memory. Topics covered are approached from the joint perspectives of behavior, computational modeling, and neural mechanisms. Prerequisite: BCS or equivalent.


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During an extended project, students carry out stereotaxic surgery, collect behavioral measurements, process neural tissue for microscopic analysis, collect anatomical data, and produce a final research paper. Prerequisites: NSC BCS Neuropsychology— Examines clinical neuropsychology, which bridges neurology, neuroscience, and clinical psychology. Covers history of clinical neuropsychology, principles of neuropsychological assessment, and the interpretation of cognition and behavior as they relate to brain dysfunction.

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