Eyes may be the window to your soul, but hands are the doors to attention and communication, according to a study from cognitive scientists at Indiana University. Previous research had focused only on the role of gaze in joint attention, but the research team found that hand-eye coordination played a more critical role in the interaction than gaze alone when they examined patterns of interaction found between children and caregivers during play. The ability to coordinate joint attention plays a role in social communication and early language learning.

The researchers evaluated 17 parent-infant pairs (where the infants were one year-old) during play. The participants were equipped with eye-tracking technology, similar to that of Google Glass, that recorded movement-to-movement high-density data on what both the parents and children visually focused. Then, they used data mining techniques to analyze it and identify meaningful patterns.

The results indicated that hand-eye coordination is given more attention by children and parents than just the eyes. Visually following a person’s hands is more advantageous when it comes to busy environments and it appears to offer greater precision over gaze only. The findings also help to resolve some of the questions raised by the somewhat flawed gaze-following theory. Although the hand-eye coordination theory supplants gaze-following to a degree, it is more likely that both types of engagement are used in parent-child pairings.

The findings also suggest possible early interventions for social communication impairments like those seen in children with autism. Since visual attention is important for language learning and teaching, the results could also offer insights to the language acquisition process.

“Now we know that typically developing children achieve joint attention with caregivers less through gaze following and more often through following the other’s hands. The daily lives of toddlers are filled with social contexts in which objects are handled … In those contexts, it appears we need to look more at another’s hands to follow the other’s lead, not just gaze,” explained Chen Yu, associate professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University Bloomington.

This research is published in the journal PLOS One.

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