Babies as young as 12 months already have a rudimentary understanding of other people’s intentions. That’s according to Terje Falck-Ytter and colleagues who observed babies’ eye movements as they watched a video presentation of a person picking up toys and putting them in a bucket.
Six-month-olds tended to follow the trajectory of the toys through the air. By contrast, 12-month-olds’ eyes jumped ahead to the bucket as if they were anticipating the person’s intentions, just as happened when adult participants watched the video.
However, this jumping ahead to the bucket only occurred when a person was moving the toys. It didn’t occur when the video showed the toys flying through the air apparently self-propelled, or they were moved mechanically, in which case the 12-month-olds and adults both moved their eyes as the 6-month-olds had done – that is, they were mostly fixated on the toys and didn’t jump ahead to the bucket.
The researchers believe the 12-month-olds’ ability to anticipate people’s intentions is based on the functioning of mirror neurons that are activated both when the baby performs a movement and when they see that same movement performed by someone else. Crucially, the 12-month-old babies, but not the 6-month-olds, have themselves mastered the action of putting toys in a bucket, thus allowing them to map their observation of someone else performing the action onto their own neural representation for performing the action.
“We have demonstrated that when observing actions, 12-month-old infants focus on goals in the same way as adults do, whereas 6-month-olds do not”, the researchers said.
Falck-Ytter, T., Gredeback, G. & von Hofsten, C. (2006). Infants predict other people’s action goals. Nature Neuroscience, 9, 878-879.