Prof. Birgit Elsner
Development of action understanding and action control in the first two years of life; imitation; social learning.
In different studies, we seek to investigate how infants and toddlers perceive the actions of other persons, and how they transfer knowledge about others" actions to their own action repertoire. An action consists of several observable components (Elsner, 2007): a movement is executed, perceivable outcomes or action effects are produced, and sometimes, specific objects or tools are used. To be able to imitate an action, the infant has to perceive the separate action components and the relations between them, and has to encode and remember this information after some delay. The main research assumption is that depending on their status of cognitive development, infants imitate different components of actions. That is, abilities of perception, attention, and memory affect infant imitation, and also infants" understanding of others" action. Thus, age differences in imitative performance can be seen as indicators of infant cognitive development.
Infant attention is typically assessed with behavioral measures, like looking times or exploration times. Although these measures can be recorded in an objective fashion and with high reliability, they nevertheless are indirect indicators of attention, because they depend on the child"s behavior and motor capabilities. Physiological measures could provide a more direct measure of infant attention. For instance, states of focused attention are accompanied by a decrease in heart rate. Therefore, one should expect that in habituation studies, the decrease in looking times across the familiarization trials and the increase in the test trials should be accompanied by a respective heart-rate increase during familiarization and decrease during test. Actually, this pattern of results was shown in a categorization task with 12-month-old infants Elsner, B., Pauen, S., & Jeschonek, S. (2006).
The use of the encephalogram (EEG) allows measuring electrophysiological correlates of information processing in the brain. One advantage of this method is the high temporal resolution, because this allows recordings for only shortly presented stimuli. Moreover, the distribution of recorded activity across the scalp allows inferring the probable localization of the studied cognitive processes. Comparisons of infants in different age groups give insights on the development of attentional processes and of the underlying brain areas.