A Sensory-Motor Solution to Early Word-Referent Learning

A Sensory-Motor Solution to Early Word-Referent Learning

Chen Yu, Linda B. Smith
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-2973-8.ch006
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Many theories of word learning begin with the uncertainty inherent to learning a word from its co-occurrence with a visual scene. However, the relevant visual scene for infant word learning is neither from the adult theorist’s view nor the mature partner’s view, but is rather from the learner’s personal view. Here, the authors review recent studies on 18-month-old infants playing with their parents in a free-flowing interaction. Frame-by-frame analyses of the head camera images at and around naming moments were conducted to determine the visual properties at input that were associated with learning. The main contribution is that toddlers, through their own actions, often create a personal view that consists of one dominating object. Parents often (but not always) name objects during these optimal sensory moments, and when they do, toddlers learn the object name. The results are discussed with respect to early word learning, embodied attention, and robotics.
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Traditional theories of intelligence (and many contemporary theories of social interaction, collaboration, and joint attention) concentrate on internal representations and inferences from those representations, paying little attention to the body and to the ways intelligence is affected by and affects the physical world. More recently, there has been a shift toward ideas of embodiment, that intelligence emerges in the interaction of an agent and its body with an environment (Brooks, Breazeal, Marjanovic, Scassellati, & Williamson, 1999; Clark, 1998; Pfeifer & Scheier, 1999; Smith & Gasser, 2005; Wilson, 2002). In these analyses, the body—its morphology and its own intrinsic dynamics—plays just as important roles as the internal cognitive system and physical environment. Beer (1995) provided a principled theoretical analysis of these ideas in which behavior and cognition are understood as arising from the dynamical interaction between a brain (or cognitive system), body and environment which critically includes other brain-body-environment systems as shown in Figure 1 (left). From this perspective, the behavior and cognition of an individual may be conceptualized as arising from the closed-loop interaction of the cognitive system with the body and environment in which it is embedded, rather than as the sole product of any single component of this coupled system, such as the brain or internal representations. In light of this, here we suggest that the behavior and collaboration of two individuals may be conceptualized as the coupling of these two systems as illustrated in Figure 1 (right). From this perspective, collaboration can be understood in terms of two coupled complex systems.

Figure 1.

Left: the brain-body-environment system in Beer (1995). Right: Our proposed coupled embodied framework of human-human interaction and communication.


In such systems, individuals make contact with the physical world through a vast array of sensory systems—vision, audition, touch, smell, to name a few. Recent advances in neuroscience suggest that neural responses – even in specific sensory areas such as the primary visual cortex V1 or the auditory cortex – may be fundamentally multimodal as activation is modulated by other modalities of sensory input (Allman & Meredith, 2007; Campi, Bales, Grunewald, & Krubitzer, 2010). Moreover, people move continually, and considerable research in the study of sensation and perception show that body movements (from body sways, to saccades, to head turns, to shifts in posture, see a review in Bertenthal (1996) play a foundational role in the very operating principles of perception. Other work shows that body movement, and particularly body orientation may play a critical role in attention and indexing memory (Hayhoe & Ballard, 2005; Richardson, Dale, & Tomlinson, 2009; Spivey, 2007).

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