Publications of Southgate, V.

A two-lab direct replication attempt of Southgate, Senju, & Csibra (2007)

The study by Southgate, V., Senju, A., and Csibra, G. (Southgate et al., 2007) has been widely cited as evidence for the ability of false-belief attribution in young children. Recent replication attempts of this paradigm have yielded mixed results: several studies were unable to replicate the original finding, raising doubts about the suitability of the paradigm to assess non-verbal action prediction and Theory of Mind. In a preregistered collaborative study including two of the original authors, we tested 160 24- to 26-month-olds across two locations following the original stimuli, procedure, and analyses as closely as possible. We found no evidence for action anticipation: only about half of the infants correctly anticipated the protagonist’s actions when action prediction did not require taking into account the agent’s beliefs. In addition, even those who appeared to anticipate failed to do so when a false belief was involved. These findings indicate that the paradigm of Southgate et al. (2007) cannot reliably elicit anticipatory action prediction and is unsuitable for testing false belief understanding in 2-year-olds.

Predictive action tracking without motor experience in 8-month-old infants

A popular idea in cognitive neuroscience is that to predict others’ actions, observers need to map those actions onto their own motor repertoire. If this is true, infants with a relatively limited motor repertoire should be unable to predict actions with which they have no previous motor experience. We investigated this idea by presenting pre-walking infants with videos of upright and inverted stepping actions that were briefly occluded from view, followed by either a correct (time-coherent) or an incorrect (time-incoherent) continuation of the action (Experiment 1). Pre-walking infants looked significantly longer to the still frame after the incorrect compared to the correct continuations of the upright, but not the inverted stepping actions. This demonstrates that motor experience is not necessary for predictive tracking of action kinematics. In a follow-up study (Experiment 2), we investigated sensorimotor cortex activation as a neural indication of predictive action tracking in another group of pre-walking infants. Infants showed significantly more sensorimotor cortex activation during the occlusion of the upright stepping actions that the infants in Experiment 1 could predictively track, than during the occlusion of the inverted stepping actions that the infants in Experiment 1 could not predictively track. Taken together, these findings are inconsistent with the idea that motor experience is necessary for the predictive tracking of action kinematics, and suggest that infants may be able to use their extensive experience with observing others’ actions to generate real-time action predictions.

Motor system activation reveals infants’ on-line prediction of others’ goals

Despite much research demonstrating infants’ abilities to attribute goals to others’ actions, it is unclear whether infants can generate on-line predictions about action outcomes, an ability crucial for the human propensity to cooperate and collaborate with others. This lack of evidence is mainly due to methodological limitations restricting the interpretation of behavioral data. Here, we exploited the fact that observers’ motor systems are recruited during the observation of goal-directed actions. We presented 9-month-old infants with part of an action. For this action to be interpreted as goal directed, the infants would need to predict an outcome for the action. Measuring the attenuation of the sensorimotor alpha signal during observation of action, we found that infants exhibited evidence of motor activation only if the observed action permitted them to infer a likely outcome. This result provides evidence for on-line goal prediction in infancy, and our method offers a new way to explore infants’ cognitive abilities.

Absence of spontaneous action anticipation by false belief attribution in children with autism spectrum disorder

Recently, a series of studies demonstrated false belief understanding in young children through completely nonverbal measures. These studies have revealed that children younger than 3 years of age, who consistently fail the standard verbal false belief test, can anticipate others’ actions based on their attributed false beliefs. The current study examined whether children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), who are known to have difficulties in the verbal false belief test, may also show such action anticipation in a nonverbal false belief test.We presented video stimuli of an actor watching an object being hidden in a box. The object was then displaced while the actor was looking away. We recorded children’s eye movements and coded whether they spontaneously anticipated the actor’s subsequent behavior, which could only have been predicted if they had attributed a false belief to her. Although typically developing children correctly anticipated the action, children with ASD failed to show such action anticipation. The results suggest that children with ASD have an impairment in false belief attribution, which is independent of their verbal ability.

Seventeen-month-olds appeal to false beliefs to interpret others' referential communication

Recent studies have demonstrated infants’ pragmatic abilities for resolving the referential ambiguity of non-verbal communicative gestures, and for inferring the intended meaning of a communicator's utterances. These abilities are difficult to reconcile with the view that it is not until around four years that children can reason about the internal mental states of others. In the current study, we tested whether 17-month-old infants are able to track the status of a communicator's epistemic state and use this to infer what she intends to refer to. Our results show that manipulating whether or not a communicator has a false belief leads infants to different interpretations of the same communicative act, and demonstrate early mental state attribution in a pragmatic context.

Southgate V, Gergely G, Csibra G. Does the mirror neuron system and its impairment explain human imitation and autism? In: Pineda JA, editor. Mirror Neuron Systems:The Role of Mirroring Processes in Social Cognition. Berlin: Springer; 2009. p. 331-54.

Does the mirror neuron system and its impairment explain human imitation and autism?

The proposal that the understanding and imitation of observed actions is made possible through the ‘mirror neuron system’ (Rizzolatti, Fogassi & Gallese, 2001) has led to much speculation that a dysfunctional mirror system may be at the root of the social deficits characteristic of autism (e.g. Ramachandran & Oberman, 2006). This chapter will critically examine the hypothesis that those with ASD may be in possession of a 'broken' mirror neuron system (MNS) and propose that the deficits seen in imitation in individuals with ASD reflect not a dysfunctional MNS, but a lack of sensitivity to those cues that would help them identify what to imitate. In doing this, we will also argue that imitation in typically developing children cannot be explained by appealing to a direct-matching mechanism, and that the process by which young children imitate involves a far more complex but effortless analysis of the communication of those who they learn from.

Sensitivity to communicative relevance tells young children what to imitate

How do children decide which elements of an action demonstration are important to reproduce in the context of an imitation game? We tested whether selective imitation of a demonstrator’s actions may be based on the same search for relevance that drives adult interpretation of ostensive communication. Three groups of 18-month-old infants were shown a toy animal either hopping or sliding (action style) into a toy house (action outcome), but the communicative relevance of the action style differed depending on the group. For the no prior information group, all the information in the demonstration was new and so equally relevant. However, for infants in the ostensive prior information group, the potential action outcome was already communicated to the infant prior to the main demonstration, rendering the action style more relevant. Infants in the ostensive prior information group imitated the action style significantly more than infants in the no prior information group, suggesting that the relevance manipulation modulated their interpretation of the action demonstration. A further condition (non-ostensive prior information) confirmed that this sensitivity to new information is only present when the ‘old ’ information had been communicated, and not when infants discovered this information for themselves. These results indicate that, like adults, human infants expect communication to contain relevant content, and imitate action elements that, relative to their current knowledge state or to the common ground with the demonstrator, is identified as most relevant.

Inferring the outcome of an ongoing novel action at 13 months

Many studies have demonstrated that infants can attribute goals to observed actions, whether they are presented live by familiar agents, or on a computer screen by abstract figures. However, because most, if not all, of these studies rely on the repeated action presentations typical of infant studies, it is not clear whether infants are simply recognizing the completed action as goal-directed, or whether they can productively infer a not-yet-achieved outcome from an ongoing action. We investigated this question by presenting 13-month-old infants with a single animated chasing event. Infants looked longer at the outcome of this action when, given the opportunity, the chaser did not catch the chasee, than when it did so. Crucially, this result was dependent on whether the chasing behaviour could be construed as an efficient action with regards to this goal state. This finding demonstrates predictive goal attribution to an ongoing novel action, and illustrates the productivity of one-year-olds' action understanding.

Predictive motor activation during action observation in human infants

Certain regions of the human brain are activated both during action execution and action observation. This so-called ‘mirror neuron system’ has been proposed to enable an observer to understand an action through a process of internal motor simulation. Although there has been much speculation about the existence of such a system from early in life, to date there is little direct evidence that young infants recruit brain areas involved in action production during action observation. To address this question, we identified the individual frequency range in which sensorimotor alpha-band activity was attenuated in nine-month-old infants’ electroencephalographs (EEGs) during elicited reaching for objects, and measured whether activity in this frequency range was also modulated by observing others’ actions. We found that observing a grasping action resulted in motor activation in the infant brain, but that this activity began prior to observation of the action, once it could be anticipated. These results demonstrate not only that infants, like adults, display overlapping neural activity during execution and observation of actions, but that this activation, rather than being directly induced by the visual input, is driven by infants’ understanding of a forthcoming action. These results provide support for theories implicating the motor system in action prediction.

Distinct processing of objects and faces in the infant brain

Previous work has shown that gamma-band electroencephalogram oscillations recorded over the posterior cortex of infants play a role in maintaining object representations during occlusion. Although it is not yet known what kind of representations are reflected in these oscillations, behavioral data suggest that young infants maintain spatiotemporal (but not featural) information during the occlusion of graspable objects, and surface feature (but not spatiotemporal) information during the occlusion of faces. To further explore this question, we presented infants with an occlusion paradigm in which they would, on half of the trials, see surface feature violations of either a face or an object. Based on previous studies, we predicted higher gamma-band activation when infants were presented with a surface feature violation of a face, but not of an object. These results were confirmed. A further analysis revealed that whereas infants exhibited a significant increase in gamma during the occlusion of an object (as reported in previous studies), no such increase was evident during the occlusion of a face. These data suggest markedly different processing of objects and faces in the infant brain and, furthermore, indicate that the representation underpinned by the posterior gamma increase may contain only spatiotemporal information.

Infants attribute goals even to biomechanically impossible actions

Human infants readily interpret the actions of others in terms of goals, but the origins of this important cognitive skill are keenly debated. We tested whether infants recognize others' actions as goal-directed on the basis of their experience with carrying out and observing goal-directed actions, or whether their perception of a goal-directed action is based on the recognition of a specific event structure. Counterintuitively, but consistent with our prediction, we observed that infants appear to extend goal attribution even to biomechanically impossible actions so long as they are physically efficient, indicating that the notion of 'goal' is unlikely to be derived directly from infants' experience. (C) 2007 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

Infant pointing: Communication to cooperate or communication to learn?

Tomasello, Carpenter, and Liszkowski (2007) present compelling data to support the view that infant pointing, from the outset, is communicative and deployed in many of the same situations in which adults would ordinarily point for one another, either to share their interest in something, or to informatively help the other person. This commentary concurs with the view that infant pointing is a communicative gesture, but challenges their interpretation of the motives behind pointing in 12-month-olds. An alternative account is proposed, according to which infant pointing is neither declarative nor imperative, but interrogative, and rather than being driven by the motive to share or help, it may serve a powerful cultural learning mechanism by which infants can obtain information from knowledgeable adults.