Doctoral project: The Nature of Joint Attention: Perception and Other Minds
From care-giver and infant playing with a toy, to singing duets or playing basketball, we frequently and effortlessly coordinate our attention with others towards a common focus. Joint attention plays a fundamental role in our social lives: it ensures that we refer to the same object, develop a shared language, understand each other and coordinate our actions.
This project aims is to elucidate the relational nature of joint attention, and its functional significance for social cognition, including cases involving different sense modalities and more complex forms of joint activities.
The project's subgoals are to:
- clarify the role of perceptual experience for characterising joint attention;
- propose a functional framework to assess multisensory contributions to establishing and maintaining joint attention;
- test the hypothesis that engaging in joint attention can affect the processing of multisensory information.
From playing basketball to ordering at a food counter, we frequently and effortlessly coordinate our attention with others towards a common focus: we look at the ball, or point at a piece of cake. This non-verbal coordination of attention plays a fundamental role in our social lives: it ensures that we refer to the same object, develop a shared language, understand each other’s mental states, and coordinate our actions. Models of joint attention generally attribute this accomplishment to gaze coordination. But are visual attentional mechanisms sufficient to achieve joint attention, in all cases? Besides cases where visual information is missing, we show how combining it with other senses can be helpful, and even necessary to certain uses of joint attention. We explain the two ways in which non-visual cues contribute to joint attention: either as enhancers, when they complement gaze and pointing gestures in order to coordinate joint attention on visible objects, or as modality pointers, when joint attention needs to be shifted away from the whole object to one of its properties, say weight or texture. This multisensory approach to joint attention has important implications for social robotics, clinical diagnostics, pedagogy and theoretical debates on the construction of a shared world.
Joint attention customarily refers to the coordinated focus of attention between two or more individuals on a common object or event, where it is mutually "open" to all attenders that they are so engaged. We identify two broad approaches to analyse joint attention, one in terms of cognitive notions like common knowledge and common awareness, and one according to which joint attention is fundamentally a primitive phenomenon of sensory experience. John Campbell's relational theory is a prominent representative of the latter approach, and the main focus of this paper. We argue that Campbell's theory is problematic for a variety of reasons, through which runs a common thread: most of the problems that the theory is faced with arise from the relational view of perception that he endorses, and, more generally, they suggest that perceptual experience is not sufficient for an analysis of joint attention.
The field of language evolution has recently made Gricean pragmatics central to its task, particularly within comparative studies between human and non-human primate communication. The standard model of Gricean communication requires a set of complex cognitive abilities, such as belief attribution and understanding nested higher-order mental states. On this model, non-human primate communication is then of a radically different kind to ours. Moreover, the cognitive demands in the standard view are also too high for human infants, who nevertheless do engage in communication. In this paper I critically assess the standard view and contrast it with an alternative, minimal model of Gricean communication recently advanced by Richard Moore. I then raise two objections to the minimal model. The upshot is that this model is conceptually unstable and fails to constitute a suitable alternative as a middle ground between full-fledged human communication and simpler forms of non-human animal communication.
I'm happy to provide drafts on request!
The Impact of Joint Attention on the Sound-Induced Flash Illusions. (With Garzorz,
I., Wahn, B., and Deroy, O.)
Interacting with others requires that we coordinate our attention on objects and events. In many cases, as when playing tennis or hunting together, we also need to select and integrate information from different senses, or ignore one modality to focus on a task-relevant one. Here we examine how joint attention modulates multisensory integration. As joint attention enhances stimulus information encoding and processing, over and above individual attention, and multisensory integration is also modulated by attention, we hypothesized that the temporal processing of multisensory events is improved when people jointly attend them. In this preregistered study, we used the sound-induced flash illusions, where an incongruent number of visual flashes and auditory beeps induces a single flash to be seen as two (fission illusion), and two flashes as one (fusion illusion). By asking participants to count flashes either alone or together, we expected that enhanced processing of the visual target relative to the distracting accompanying sounds would lead to a decrease of both fission and fusion illusions when the targets were jointly attended. Joint attention did not affect the overall frequency of illusions, but decreased participants’ criterion bias in the fusion illusion. Our results reveal the limitations of the theory that joint attention results in greater processing resources as it does not extend to temporal audiovisual integration.
Opening up the Openness of Joint Attention. Draft (comments welcome)
The ability to engage in joint attention, in which two individuals attend to the same object or event together, is considered fundamental for language learning, for understanding others and for joint actions. Joint attention is often defined as a mutually open, or transparent relation between co-attenders. But how should this openness be characterised? Two broad theoretical views have been proposed. One view reductively accounts for the mutual awareness characteristic of joint attention in terms of individual mental states and properties. According to non-reductive views, in contrast, mutual awareness is based on some primitive intersubjective relation, which is irreducible to the individual states of its relata. I argue that tensions in these approaches arise from the attempt to address both normative and cognitive explananda simultaneously. Both approaches are primarily designed to tackle the normative epistemological concerns of joint attention, and their problems arise when they conflate these concerns with psychological ones. Drawing from evidence in developmental and cognitive psychology, I outline the case for a cognitive-first account of joint attention based on a weaker notion of openness and mutual awareness. I conclude by assessing the epistemic implications of this account.