Electrophysiological investigation of infants' understanding of understanding

Dev Cogn Neurosci. 2020 Jun;43:100783. doi: 10.1016/j.dcn.2020.100783. Epub 2020 Apr 28.

Abstract

Social cognition might play a critical role in language acquisition and comprehension, as mindreading may be necessary to infer the intended meaning of linguistic expressions uttered by communicative partners. In three electrophysiological experiments, we explored the interplay between belief attribution and language comprehension of 14-month-old infants. First, we replicated our earlier finding: infants produced an N400 effect to correctly labelled objects when the labels did not match a communicative partner's beliefs about the referents. Second, we observed no N400 when we replaced the object with another category member. Third, when we named the objects incorrectly for infants, but congruently with the partner's false belief, we observed large N400 responses, suggesting that infants retained their own perspective in addition to that of the partner. We thus interpret the observed social N400 effect as a communicational expectancy indicator because it was contingent not on the attribution of false beliefs but on semantic expectations by both the self and the communicative partner. Additional exploratory analyses revealed an early, frontal, positive-going electrophysiological response in all three experiments, which was contingent on infants' computing the comprehension of the social partner based on attributed beliefs.

Keywords: ERPs; False belief; Language acquisition; N400; Social cognition; Theory-of-Mind.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Comprehension / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography / methods*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Male