Early Cognitive Development Lab


Our research is broadly focused on the development of social cognition and perception, from infancy into adulthood. Humans are intensely social creatures. How do infants come to understand the meaning and motives behind other people’s actions? How do infants and children learn from others? How do infants generalize their own action knowledge to understand the actions of others?

Below you will find descriptions of some of our ongoing research projects.

Infant Action Perception

What do infants pay attention to when they view other people performing actions? An answer to this question depends on how old the infant is. We have found younger infants (4-month-olds) devote equal attention to a broad variety of perceptual dimensions in action: type of hand contact, spatial trajectory, and action speed. Older infants, however, have narrowed their attention to only focusing on the type of hand contact, and are relatively inattentive to spatial trajectory or speed of action.

Why focus on hand contact? One possibility is that this helps infants anticipate upcoming actions. We have found that 10-month-old infants are sensitive to the kind of hand contact someone uses and how it relates to future actions that they can perform. For instance, these infants understand that an upside-down bowl cannot be lifted with a precision grasp (finger and thumb together). Infants appear to gain this knowledge from their own motor experience using precision grasps.

In ongoing studies, we are examining what causes this developmental shift in infants’ attention and perception. We are also examining flexibility in infants’ attention to action dimensions.

Imitation and Memory in Preschoolers

Young children frequently learn new skills and behaviours by observing the actions of others. How do they keep all of this action information organized in their mind? By observing how children imitate others’ complex actions, we have found that children preferentially focus on the overarching goals that bind actions together: that brushing teeth, lying down in bed, and getting tucked in are all part of a larger goal of going to bed. Children use this organizational strategy to recall another person’s action, even when it conflicts with the sequential order of the action they may have just observed. In ongoing studies, we are examining how children’s prior knowledge of activities influences their memory.

Adult Action Perception

We also investigate how adults perceive and comprehend the actions of others, in order to understand the endpoint of this developmental process. We have found that adults are selective in the kind of information they focus on when they observe other people’s behaviour, much like older infants. Furthermore, we have found that the way in which adults process action information is different from how they process other visual stimuli. This kind of specialization appears similar to the specialized processing observed in human face perception. In ongoing studies, we are examining how people's eye movements when they view actions relates to these processes.