Publications of Kovács, Á. M.

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 one-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 that it looked 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 nonhuman 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 neuro-cognitive bases of 8-month-olds’ ability to encode the world from another person’s perspective, using gamma-band EEG activity over the temporal lobes, an established neural signature for sustained object representation after occlusion. We observed such gamma-band 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 the world 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.