An explanation for baby pointingDaly and Newton/Getty By Adam VaughanWhy do babies point? The reason the behaviour kicks in across all human cultures when children are between 9 and 14 months old has not been entirely clear before, but researchers now believe they have the answer: touch. The finding could aid understanding of child development and the evolution of language. Some experts have suggested that pointing begins with reaching. But there is good evidence that this is unlikely, says Cathal O’Madagain at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. “When reaching, [infants] have the fingers splayed out. You don’t see the distinctive index finger sticking out.” Instead, O’Madagain and a European team suggest the unique phenomenon originates from attempts to touch things. They undertook three experiments with groups aged 18 months to adulthood, and they argue the results back up the hypothesis. Advertisement Pointing to touch The first test revealed that we don’t necessarily angle a pointing finger in a way that will direct another observer’s attention towards the object we are pointing at. Rather, a virtual line runs from our eye through our fingertip and towards the object, as if we were reaching to touch the object. The second test looked at the way we rotate our wrists when pointing at objects – for instance, how we point at a magnet attached to the right-facing side of a box that is placed directly in front of us. Even infants, if using their right hand to point at the magnet, will often rotate their wrist almost 180 degrees so that the pad of their pointing finger is directed towards the magnet, as if reaching to touch it. The third tested how people interpret a pointing gesture being performed by someone else. It showed that 18-month-olds and 3-year-olds – but not nine-year-olds and adults – understand a pointing gesture to be an attempt by someone to touch an object, not an attempt to use their finger as an ‘arrow’ to direct attention in a certain direction. “This allows us to put together a very different account of the origin of pointing – which is that pointing comes out of exploratory touch,” says O’Madagain. He says the research offers a biological, non-cerebral explanation of how children arrive at ‘joint attention’, a milestone in child development where they learn how to focus attention with another person on an object. Journal reference: Science Advances, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aav2558 More on these topics: children
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