Wednesday, March 22, 2017
Perception of Animacy

How and when do infants distinguish between animate and inanimate entities?  How does the recognition of agency relate to the recognition of animacy, or even the recognition of biological motion?  These abilities form the foundation of developing social cognition--indeed, the foundation of almost everything we study in this lab!  For this reason, we have many ongoing projects on this topic.  Some of our recent work includes (but is not limited to) the following:

- By 4 months of age, infants seem to have certain expectations about inanimate objects. For example, they are sensitive to violations of the constraints of object physics such as cohesion (objects move as bounded wholes), solidity, and continuity (objects move on connected paths). However, we know much less about whether infants properly extend these physical principles to animate objects. If they do, it would imply an understanding of the duality of animates: objects engaging in self-initiated, often goal-directed action, yet fundamentally material objects.  We explore this topic by asking whether infants reason differently about humans and inanimate objects in terms of object physics. 

- The movements of animate agents offer an abundance of information to the adult human observer; we can extract information regarding species classification, gender, attractiveness, and emotion from animate motion. Intriguingly, we do so even when the motion is depicted in simple point-light displays conveying the movement of the major joints of the body in the absence of key morphological features (e.g., faces, skin, hair).  Even infants as young as 2-days-old differentiate between biological and random motion point-light displays and preferentially attend to biological motion.  This seemingly innate ability to recognize and preferentially attend to the motion of biological entities, even when presented in its most rudimentary form, is hypothesized to underlie developing social cognition.  Little is known, however, about how (or whether) human infants interpret the actual motion within point-light displays of biological motion.  As a first step, we have been examining 6-month-old infants’ ability to detect the directionality of a human point-light walker. Specifically, we tested whether young infants differentiate between leftward and rightward walking of a human point-light figure, even when the figure is not actually horizontally translating (i.e., the walker appears to be on a treadmill).




Relevant Publications:

Kuhlmeier, V.A., Bloom, P., & Wynn, K. (2004). Do 5-month-old infants see humans as material objects?
Cognition, 94, 95-103.

Kuhlmeier, V.A., Wynn, K., & Bloom, P. (2004). People v. Objects: A reply to Rakison and Chicchino.
Cognition, 94, 109-112.

Kuhlmeier, V.A., Troje, N., & Lee, V.  (in press). Young infants detect the direction of biological motion in point-light displays.

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