Posts tagged with "University of London"

Bundle of joy: Babies start laughing before they can speak

February 11, 2021

There are few sweeter sounds in this world than a baby’s sweet chortles. Indeed, psychologists believe that a baby’s smiles and laughs—which typically begin at the age of three months and precede his or her first words by about six months—can promote bonding between parents and their new bundle of joy.

Indeed, laughter may be one of the earliest clues as to how we humans experience the world. This is what first interested Dr. Casper Addyman, a lecturer in developmental psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London; and director of the Goldsmiths InfantLab. He wanted to study how babies learn, but, unlike a scientist working with adult subjects, “You can’t ask babies questions or get them to press buttons,” he says.

Eventually, what he learned became the topic of a talk at TEDx Bratislava on “Life Lessons from Laughing Babies.” TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or less). TED began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment, and Design converged, and today covers almost all topics — from science to business to global issues — in more than 100 languages. Meanwhile, independently run TEDx events help share ideas in communities around the world.

But, as a first step into this field, Addyman—who is not a father, himself—collected parents’ observations of their babies’ laughter (in his research, he classifies babies as children up to 30 months).

From September 2012 through November 2013, about 1,500 mothers and fathers from 62 countries across the globe—including the Philippines, Zambia, Uruguay, and Australia — responded to Addyman’s questions; and some sent in short videos. When did their babies first laugh? What situations do they find the funniest? What toys and games made them laugh the most?

Based on this research, Addyman reached the following conclusions, which also became the foundation of his TEDx talk:

There is one game that babies all around the world find a laugh riot. Contenders for most hilarious game included such heavyweights as making silly noises or playing with puppets. The hands-down winner, however—even across different countries—was … peekaboo. Addyman was intrigued. He didn’t think its power was just its ability to surprise. Because while young babies may think the other person actually disappears when they hide behind their hands and get shocked into giggles when the hider reappears, older babies, such as two-year-olds, aren’t fooled — and yet they still find it absolutely hilarious.

A key ingredient that fuels early laughter: Sharing For the experiment, Addyman observed how children between  the ages of 2-and-one-half years old and 4 years old reacted to a funny cartoon when they watched it alone, with one other child, and in a group. Children laughed eight times as much when they were with another child than when they watched the cartoon on their own — even though they reported that the cartoon was just as funny in both situations.

And interestingly enough, the children didn’t laugh any more in a big group than they laughed with just one other person. This suggested to him that laughter is more than a contagious reaction; instead, it’s “a signal to someone else that’s there,” he says. “The main reason they’re laughing is to communicate that they find this funny.” For example, when preschoolers watched the cartoon alone, they sometimes looked around and tried to catch the researcher’s eye during funny moments.

The need to communicate with laughter may have deep roots in our development as a species, speculates Addyman. Evolutionary biology suggests it’s a way for humans to share with other humans — and thus, to belong. While he is still teasing out why children needed to signal their enjoyment of the cartoon to whoever was there, he thinks it has to do with the idea, raised by Oxford University anthropologist and primatologist Robin Dunbar, that laughter could be a replacement for the earlier primate behavior of grooming. “Grooming was a one-on-one, unfakeable investment of time in somebody else,” explains Addyman, and it created trust among group members as well as a sense of community.

If peekaboo fails, try tickling — but please limit it to the babies you know. The importance of a sense of belonging explains another result from Addyman’s original survey. In it, tickling was the most popular answer to the question: “What is the one thing sure to make your baby laugh?” But if a stranger did the tickling, the baby became scared.

So, what really makes babies laugh?My one-word answer is ‘people,’” Addyman says. “If you want to make it two words, it’s ‘adult attention.’ Or, ‘human connection.’” Take peekaboo, for instance: Compared to other games, such as making funny noises or using puppets, it is, he explains, “pure social interaction—it really is about the eye contact and the connection with the baby.” As anyone who’s played peekaboo knows, the key moment is when, as Addyman puts it, “you come back into eye contact with them, and the fact you’re keeping the game going is delightful and causes them to laugh.” The baby’s laughter is their way of sharing and rewarding you for this prolonged attention. “They’re having a conversation with you,” he says.

But we’re still very much on the frontier when it comes to the science of baby laughter, says Addyman Among the broader questions that he hopes to explore someday is: How does a baby’s laughter play a role in their learning process?

He thinks laughter could be an expression of what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow,” a joyful state that involves alert engagement with a task and a feeling of control.

Babies “seem like they’re being made happy when they get something new,” Addyman says. Given laughter’s social power, it could be that babies laugh to reward other people for staying engaged in the learning game and for helping them forward. Their delight, and the help they continue receiving because of it, are, he adds, “part of what drives them forward to master the next thing, gradually achieving greater and greater mastery over the world.”

Research contact: @TEDx

Here’s looking at you: The uncomfortable truth about staring

October 30, 2018

If you drop something in public, or raise your voice, or rush to the aid of a person in need, you are not surprised when all eyes in the vicinity turn in your direction. But, what if you are sitting on the bus and can’t help but feel that the passenger sitting across the aisle is watching—or even judging—you? It’s just a sensation you cannot explain, but you are convinced that you have become the target of another person’s visual fixation.

Conversely, perhaps you are the one doing the staring—and you are not sure what attracted your attention, but you cannot drag your eyes away.

Study results published on October 27 by Psychology Today—and posited by the University of London’s Hannah Scott and colleagues—have determined that people stare because “faces, and in particular, the eyes, provide lots of useful non-verbal information about a person’s mental state.”

The eyes betray “socially relevant information,” they go on to explain, because when you see what people are looking at, you have some idea about what they might be thinking.

Indeed, the authors suggest that people read your body language in order to extract as much information as possible, and they will direct their gaze toward the part of your body providing that information. In fact, it’s not just the eyes that people stare. The British researchers observe that people also stare at other people’s lips to gain additional contextual cues about what they mean while they’re talking. If you feel someone’s eyes focused on your mouth while you’re speaking, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they want a kiss—but it could be because they actually can’t hear you all that well.

Your hands also might be the focus of attention, if you are using gestures to emphasize what you are saying—or perhaps they’re trying to figure out how to do what you’re doing. That person watching you on the bus might be observing you playing a video game on your mobile device or crocheting a scarf. Maybe there’s a skill you have that this person wants to learn. If that person is watching your feet, it might be to help figure out when to get up to make it off the bus for an upcoming stop.

The 72 undergraduates who participated in the University of London study watched three videos (each, about two minutes long) that varied according to the activities of the male actors. The researchers recorded the eye movements of the students while they watched the actor either looking directly at the viewer while giving a monologue (without many hand gestures), talking while making a cup of tea, or performing a magic routine in which both speech and hand motions actively misdirected attention from the trick. The researchers also varied the presence or absence of sound during the actor’s performance.

During the monologue condition, whether or not there was audio present, participants spent most of the time looking at the actor’s face but not his hands. The opposite pattern appeared for the tea-making task, as was also true for the magic routine.

Additionally, looking just at the period when the actor looked directly into screen (about 48% of the video), participants looked more at the eyes than the mouth, if there was audio playing at the same time. With no audio, in the monologue condition, viewers seemed to try to decipher what the actor was saying by watching his mouth move. There were no systematic eye-mouth differences in the viewers when the actors performed either the manual or the music task.  However, if the actor looked directly into the screen while performing the manual task, then viewers were drawn to fixating on his face.

The authors concluded that there is not general bias toward looking at someone else’s face when given the opportunity. The only time people will try to read a face is if the person is speaking. If the person is doing something else, it’s the body part that’s moving which attracts the viewer’s gaze.

As the authors conclude, “Our hands seem to play just as important a role in orienting people’s attention as our eyes do.”  However, if the person looks directly at the viewer while performing a manual task, then the viewer will respond in kind and look at the individual’s face (which is why magicians talk so much).

When someone’s gaze is directed at you, then your tendency will be to stare back, in a “non-verbal acknowledgment.” Looking at someone who looks at you, therefore, becomes a key aspect of nonverbal communication.

It’s natural, then, to stare at someone—especially if the person is speaking softly or doing something interesting that you can watch. What makes the person stared at uncomfortable, then, would seem to be a mismatch between the appropriateness of the situation and whether it presents a logical basis for staring. It feels odd to be the target of someone’s undiluted attention if you’re not initiating eye contact or if you’re not doing anything special with your hands or feet that merits an out-and-out stare.

A staring contest can be fun if it’s a game both of you are playing, but off-putting in the extreme if you’re an unwilling participant.

Research contact: @swhitbo