Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Early communicative vocalizations and the raspberry

M has begun blowing raspberries. It started one day just before she turned five months. I picked her up at day care and a teacher asked me whether she had been doing it at home – but this was the first I had heard of it. When I got her home and went to change her diaper, she rewarded me with a big wet "thbbbbt!" Since then, she deploys them unpredictably, with the raspberry even being her dominant vocalization some days.

What do the raspberries mean? I don't know – but they have an interesting feature: they are not necessarily either happy or sad. Sometimes M is struggling to get something out of reach, grunting with frustration, and then she turns aside and blows what seems to me (and other unbiased observers, like her mom) to be a sad raspberry. Other times, she looks at her grandmother or grandfather, smiles, and blows a happy one.

A gorgeous new paper by Oller and colleagues argues that this affective flexibility is an important characteristic of infants' early vocalizations. The study is very simple, coding the affective expression (e.g. smile, grimace, etc.) that goes along with a range of baby noises, including laughter, crying, squealing, growling, and "vocants" (coos and their siblings). Unlike laughter and cries, the other three vocalizations are all remarkably flexible. Like M's raspberries, they go along with – perhaps are even used to express – sadness, happiness, or something else altogether. Even infants 3 - 4 months old showed this same flexibility.

This early flexibility account seems like it goes along with a number of other proto-communicative responses that I've seen in M. Each of these is individually-consistent with conditioning of a specific response to a social stimulus. But they are also not inconsistent with the early beginnings of communication: 
  • When M is hungry at night, she cries harder when she sees or hears me come into the room. Presumably this is because she knows she has an audience?
  • M looks at me when I say her name (also when I say other things, but her name and various nicknames seem especially attention-grabbing)
  • M has started putting her arms up in a way that could be interpreted as "pick me up!"
  • Once (around 4 months), M cooed loudly, and I turned around in surprise. Her face lit up with a bigger smile than usual, as if to say "I didn't know that would happen!"
Again, none of these give strong evidence in favor of a communicative account over pure stimulus-response learning. But all seem like great candidates for further investigation – either to test whether they are communicative  or else to understand better how communication emerges out of simple social associations. 

(A post I drafted last month, hastily wrapped up.)

ResearchBlogging.org Oller DK, Buder EH, Ramsdell HL, Warlaumont AS, Chorna L, & Bakeman R (2013). Functional flexibility of infant vocalization and the emergence of language. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 110 (16), 6318-23 PMID: 23550164

Emergence of empathy and separation anxiety

M is six months this week (and sleeping in this morning; hence, time for blogging).

Over the weekend I noticed the emergence of two social behaviors – separation anxiety and empathic crying – that I hadn't previously thought were related. But this developmental co-incidence is making me reconsider.

Re "separation anxiety": M is an extremely social baby and up until now has loved being held by other people, spending time with different teachers at daycare, etc. So I was quite surprised when – for the first time – she burst into tears when a friend was holding her and I left the room. The same exact thing happened the next day with a different friend and M's mom, and then again at daycare yesterday.

From BabyCenter (that reliable source for all things developmental):
At around 7 months your baby will realize that he's independent of you. While this is an exciting cognitive milestone, this new understanding of separateness can make him anxious. He knows that you can leave him, but he doesn't know that you'll always come back, so he's likely to burst into tears when you leave, even for a minute.
I'm somewhat skeptical about the Freudian gloss about individuation that's given – and the connections to Piagetian object permanence also freak me out a bit (given that the different markers of this visual ability have moved around so much developmentally and depend on so many other aspects of cognition, e.g. here and here). Nevertheless, the phenomenon is striking.

And re empathic crying: a much-cited study suggests that even newborns cry more when they hear other babies crying. And indeed, I had noticed that M was a little bit more likely to cry when someone was crying nearby. But my primary observation was that she mostly didn't look visibly distressed by their distress. I was surprised, then, that during this last weekend she cared so much about our friends' sad toddlers and babies. To over-interpret a bit, it seemed like she got a pained look every time they screamed – as though she didn't want to continue carefree play while someone else was in so much discomfort.

On the Freudian/Piagetian gloss of separation anxiety, these two behaviors should likely have very little to do with one another. But if you posit that there is some underlying social understanding that is developing, it's not completely implausible that they are coincident. Perhaps the same understanding of their own vulnerability without the parent is also helping the child feel sympathy for a distressed other...

(edits 1/14)