Publications of Csibra, Gergely

Can infants adopt underspecified contents into attributed beliefs? Representational prerequisites of theory of mind

Recent evidence suggests that young infants, as well as nonhuman apes, can anticipate others' behavior based on their false beliefs. While such behaviors have been proposed to be accounted by simple associations between agents, objects, and locations, human adults are undoubtedly endowed with sophisticated theory of mind abilities. For example, they can attribute mental contents about abstract or non-existing entities, or beliefs whose content is poorly specified. While such endeavors may be human specific, it is unclear whether the representational apparatus that allows for encoding such beliefs is present early in development. In four experiments we asked whether 15-month-old infants are able to attribute beliefs with underspecified content, update their content later, and maintain attributed beliefs that are unknown to be true or false. In Experiment 1, infants observed as an agent hid an object to an unspecified location. This location was later revealed in the absence or presence of the agent, and the object was then hidden again to an unspecified location. Then the infants could search for the object while the agent was away. Their search was biased to the revealed location (that could be represented as the potential content of the agent's belief when she had not witnessed the re-hiding), suggesting that they (1) first attributed an underspecified belief to the agent, (2) later updated the content of this belief, and (3) were primed by this content in their own action even though its validity was unknown. This priming effect was absent when the agent witnessed the re-hiding of the object, and thus her belief about the earlier location of the object did not have to be sustained. The same effect was observed when infants searched for a different toy (Experiment 2) or when an additional spatial transformation was introduced (Experiment 4), but not when the spatial transformation disrupted belief updating (Experiment 3). These data suggest that infants' representational apparatus is prepared to efficiently track other agents' beliefs online, encode underspecified beliefs and define their content later, possibly reflecting a crucial characteristic of mature theory of mind: using a metarepresentational format for ascribed beliefs.

Retrospective attribution of false beliefs in 3-year-old children

A current debate in psychology and cognitive science concerns the nature of young children’s ability to attribute and track others’ beliefs. Beliefs can be attributed in at least two different ways: prospectively, during the observation of belief-inducing situations, and in a retrospective manner, based on episodic retrieval of the details of the events that brought about the beliefs. We developed a task in which only retrospective attribution, but not prospective belief tracking, would allow children to correctly infer that someone had a false belief. Eighteen- and 36-month-old children observed a displacement event, which was witnessed by a person wearing sunglasses (Experiment 1). Having later discovered that the sunglasses were opaque, 36-month-olds correctly inferred that the personmust have formed a false belief about the location of the objects and used this inference in resolving her referential expressions. They successfully performed retrospective revision in the opposite direction as well, correcting a mistakenly attributed false belief when this was necessary (Experiment 3). Thus, children can compute beliefs retrospectively, based on episodic memories, well before they pass explicit false-belief tasks. Eighteen-month-olds failed in such a task, suggesting that they cannot retrospectively attribute beliefs or revise their initial belief attributions. However, an additional experiment provided evidence for prospective tracking of false beliefs in 18-month-olds (Experiment 2). Beyond identifying two different modes for tracking and updating others’ mental states early in development, these results also provide clear evidence of episodic memory retrieval in young children.

Seeing behind the surface: communicative demonstration boosts category disambiguation in 12-month-olds

In their first years, infants acquire an incredible amount of information regarding the objects present in their environment. While often it is not clear what specific information should be prioritized in encoding from the many characteristics of an object, different types of object representations facilitate different types of generalizations. We tested the hypotheses that 1-year-old infants distinctively represent familiar objects as exemplars of their kind, and that ostensive communication plays a role in determining kind membership for ambiguous objects. In the training phase of our experiment, infants were exposed to movies displaying an agent sorting objects from two categories (cups and plates) into two locations (left or right). Afterwards, different groups of infants saw either an ostensive or a non-ostensive demonstration performed by the agent, revealing that a new object that looked like a plate can be transformed into a cup. A third group of infants experienced no demonstration regarding the new object. During test, infants were presented with the ambiguous object in the plate format, and we measured generalization by coding anticipatory looks to the plate or the cup side. While infants looked equally often towards the two sides when the demonstration was non-ostensive, and more often to the plate side when there was no demonstration, they performed more anticipatory eye movements to the cup side when the demonstration was ostensive. Thus, ostensive demonstration likely highlighted the hidden dispositional properties of the target object as kind-relevant, guiding infants’ categorization of the foldable cup as a cup, despite it looking like a plate. These results suggest that infants likely encode familiar objects as exemplars of their kind and that ostensive communication can play a crucial role in disambiguating what kind an object belongs to, even when this requires disregarding salient surface features.

Neural signatures for sustaining object representations attributed to others in preverbal human infants

A major feat of social beings is to encode what their conspecifics see, know or believe. While various non-human animals show precursors of these abilities, humans perform uniquely sophisticated inferences about other people’s mental states. However, it is still unclear how these possibly human-specific capacities develop and whether preverbal infants, similarly to adults, form representations of other agents’ mental states, specifically metarepresentations.We explored the neurocognitive bases of eight-month-olds’ ability to encode the world from another person’s perspective, using gamma-band electroencephalographic activity over the temporal lobes, an established neural signature for sustained object representation after occlusion. We observed such gammaband activity when an object was occluded from the infants’ perspective, as well as when it was occluded only from the other person (study 1), and also when subsequently the object disappeared, but the person falsely believed the object to be present (study 2). These findings suggest that the cognitive systems involved in representing theworld from infants’ own perspective are also recruited for encoding others’ beliefs. Such results point to an early-developing, powerful apparatus suitable to deal with multiple concurrent representations, and suggest that infants can have a metarepresentational understanding of other minds even before the onset of language.

Electrophysiological Evidence for the Understanding of Maternal Speech by 9- Month-Old Infants

Early word learning in infants relies on statistical, prosodic, and social cues that support speech segmentation and the attachment of meaning to words. It is debated whether such early word knowledge represents mere associations between sound patterns and visual object features, or reflects referential understanding of words. By using event-related brain potentials, we demonstrate that 9-month-old infants detect the mismatch between an object appearing from behind an occluder and a preceding label with which their mother introduces it. The N400 effect has been shown to reflect semantic priming in adults, and its absence in infants has been interpreted as a sign of associative word learning. By setting up a live communicative situation for referring to objects, we demonstrate that a similar priming effect also occurs in young infants. This finding may indicate that word meaning is referential from the outset, and it drives, rather than results from, vocabulary acquisition in humans.