A hallmark of human nature is the ability to share information and to comprehend the thoughts and intentions of others. This capability involves social cognition (the cognitive processes involved in social interaction) and makes a significant contribution to the foundations for language development, as well as social competence. It also sets us apart from other primates.
However, before infants have developed social cognition and language, they communicate and learn new information by following the gaze of others and by using their own eye contact and gestures to show or direct the attention of the people around them. Scientists refer to this skill as “joint attention.” Joint attention is vital to social competence at all ages: Children and adults that are unable to follow engage and react to joint attention may forever be impaired in their capacity for relatedness and relationships.
In fact, clinical research indicates that autism is characterized by chronic, pronounced impairments in initiating joint attention. In other words, autistics show a lack of spontaneous sharing experiences with others. Mundy also points out that individual differences in joint attention are related to the intensity of social symptoms, responsiveness to interventions, and long-term social outcomes in children with autism.
The concept of joint attention is a bit more complicated than just following others’ gaze; it requires the integration of several networks in the brain. Even though it is a vital skill, scientists know surprisingly little about the development of joint attention.
In a review appearing in the October issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, University of Miami psychologists Peter Mundy and Lisa Newell summarize recent findings supporting a theory of joint attention dubbed the “attention-systems model.”
This model proposes that human social cognition is really the extraordinary result of two basic forms of attention. One type of attention, regulated by a specific set of neurons in the brain, involves paying attention to the external world and the actions of people. The second type involves paying attention to the self and is regulated by a different network of neurons.
Mundy and Newell propose that the key to human joint attention is that these two areas of the brain become interconnected throughout development and interact so we can simultaneously keep track of the direction of self and other’s attention. Interestingly, communication between brain regions, especially those implicated in initiating joint attention, is one of the main cognitive impairments of autism.