Multiple sensory-motor pathways lead to coordinated visual attention

Chen Yu, Linda B. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

75 Citations (Scopus)


Joint attention has been extensively studied in the developmental literature because of overwhelming evidence that the ability to socially coordinate visual attention to an object is essential to healthy developmental outcomes, including language learning. The goal of this study was to understand the complex system of sensory‐motor behaviors that may underlie the establishment of joint attention between parents and toddlers. In an experimental task, parents and toddlers played together with multiple toys. We objectively measured joint attention—and the sensory‐motor behaviors that underlie it—using a dual head‐mounted eye‐tracking system and frame‐by‐frame coding of manual actions. By tracking the momentary visual fixations and hand actions of each participant, we precisely determined just how often they fixated on the same object at the same time, the visual behaviors that preceded joint attention and manual behaviors that preceded and co‐occurred with joint attention. We found that multiple sequential sensory‐motor patterns lead to joint attention. In addition, there are developmental changes in this multi‐pathway system evidenced as variations in strength among multiple routes. We propose that coordinated visual attention between parents and toddlers is primarily a sensory‐motor behavior. Skill in achieving coordinated visual attention in social settings—like skills in other sensory‐motor domains—emerges from multiple pathways to the same functional end.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5-31
Number of pages27
JournalCognitive Science
Issue numberS1
Early online date25 Mar 2016
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2017
Externally publishedYes

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