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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

More About Infants and Eye Contact: Gaze, Words, Gestures

How and why people make “eye contact” is a source of never-ending interest, especially to parents and caregivers of infants and toddlers. Experiencing a mutual gaze (which is probably a better term for eye contact) can be very gratifying to adults; it seems to tell us that some other person thinks we are really worth paying attention to. We don’t care for a stare-- when another person keeps his or her gaze ready to “catch” ours even though we pointedly look away-- but when we gaze at another, we are happy to find that that person gazes back at us. Because we find mutual gaze pleasing, parents are delighted when their infants return their gaze and carry on a prolonged shared look. When infants don’t do this after a few months of development after birth, their parents may also worry that there is something wrong. Perhaps the child’s vision is not normal, or perhaps there’s some burgeoning problem of early mental health. Autism is commonly feared by modern parents who have heard that lack of eye contact is characteristic of children with serious developmental problems of this type.

It’s true that in typical development, there is a growing use of the gaze in communication. It’s not just relevant to love and attachment, but to thinking about and understanding what other people want and do. Watching another person’s gaze gives more than emotional gratification—in combination with facial expression, it can tell you what he knows about, what he’s afraid of, what he wants you to do, and so on. All these are important things for a baby to figure out. Let’s not forget, though, that visually-impaired babies, children, and adults usually manage to learn these things about other people even though they do not have the capacity for mutual gaze or for monitoring the direction of another person’s gaze. The typical pattern of development for the normally-sighted baby is probably the easiest to manage, but it is not the only way human beings can learn to communicate with others and we should not give it so much importance that we think of it as a magical factor.

A recent study by Eugenio Parise et al. (“Influence of eye gaze on spoken word processing: An ERP study with infants”, Child Development , 2011,Vol. 82, pp. 842-853) examined whether a person’s gaze, seen before speaking began, made a difference to the way 5-month-old babies’ brains processed the speech they heard. The babies sometimes saw a face gazing directly at them and sometimes saw one with averted eyes; they sometimes hear a voice speaking normally (“forward”) and sometimes heard a voice speaking backward. They seemed to be especially interested in the direct gaze-- perhaps signaling “Hey, I’m talking to you, kiddo”-- combined with the unfamiliar backward-spoken words. The point about their responding differently is that the babies did not act as if what they saw and what they heard were unrelated. Instead, their listening was partly guided by what they saw, and especially by whether there was mutual gaze or not. What they saw seemed to have a role to play in their attention to and learning of the spoken language-- an exceedingly important step in child development.

One thing this tells us is that caregivers who look at infants infrequently are not giving them as many opportunities to learn as they may need. Caregivers who use their gaze, either in direct looking at the baby’s face, to “point” to an interesting object, or to avert when occasionally avoiding social contact, are providing much more information about language than dozens of flashcards pinned around the room. Caregivers who rarely use the gaze in ways babies can learn from may be depressed, sick, tired, or overwhelmed with work --- an example might be day care providers who have too many babies to care for.

Now, here’s what I want to know, and to the best of my knowledge no one has asked or answered this question: what about gesture language? It’s presently quite fashionable to use gesture language with infants and toddlers, to teach it and to encourage the children to use it, either at home or in group child care settings. Where does the adult’s gaze come into this? Can a direct gaze guide the child to be especially attentive to a gesture? If the child has to look at the hands to see the gesture, rather than listening while following the adult’s gaze to see an object referred to, how is language learning influenced? The great advantage of spoken language is that we can look at the thing talked about while listening to speech at one moment, and look at the speaker’s gaze while still listening to speech at the next moment. This seems to be a pattern that comes easily to sighted babies by about 5 months of age, but what if they don’t often get to do it, or do it only while simultaneously trying to look at a gesture?

I don’t want to suggest that gesture language in some way interferes with the typical process of learning. Babies with both visual and hearing impairments learn to communicate, but they follow their own patterns of growth and development. Is the same true for babies who are taught to use and understand gestures? It might be. There’s much still to learn, but it’s clear that eye contact can play a complicated role in both social and cognitive development.


  1. I would like to comment on your thoughts about gestural language and how it competes with the use of gaze.

    My daughter, who is currently 2.5 yrs, just finished a brief course in the Early On program, which she was enrolled in for a "expressive verbal language delay". At the age of 1 year 11 months, she was not making any consonant sounds at all. She didn't even say 'Mama'. It's not that she wasn't communicating: we had taught her American Sign Language from age 9 months on, and she had a functional sign vocabulary (expressive and receptive) of at least 30 words. She UNDERSTOOD our vocal language just fine - I could tell her to get in her chair, or go the bathroom (without sign) and she was capable of following complex, 2-step directions, but she would not speak.

    So we had her enrolled in the Early On program in our county, and after the first visit, our special educator identified the problem: She wasn't looking at our face when we talked to her, she was looking at our hands! We theorized that she was not aware of how our vocal sounds were made. The teacher spent 4-5 sessions withholding toys until my daughter started making eye contact when asking for things (by sign), and then the verbal 'dam' broke, and within 3 months she was speaking in whole sentences.

    So in the end, she was still learning the words, hearing the language, and understanding it, but her focus on our hands rather than our faces delayed her own ability to learn how to mimic those sounds for herself. (Oddly enough, she still uses ASL grammar, saying "hey! Sandwich Mine!" rather than "Hey! My Sandwich!")

  2. That is very interesting - the comment I mean! Thanks for bringing our attention to it in another post, Jean! :D I just heard you on the Point of Inquiry podcast and loved your interview btw!