Development and natural history of pointing

We're interested in how humans learn to point and how this skill evolves as we grow up. Our research looks into pointing both in children and adults.

Smiling woman holds a toddler and points at the camera

Multimodal correlates of pointing

Traditionally, human pointing is seen as a triadic gesture that refers to a specific event or entity. There is a central contemporary debate about whether humans have specialised evolutionary cognitive adaptations to understanding pointing by others.

Dave Leavens is interested in what babies come to learn about pointing in addition to its referential function. In particular, he is interested in the emotional signals that parents display in parallel with their pointing gestures, when they are pointing for their babies.

In 2014, Dave Leavens, working with Brenda Todd and our students, reported that parents synchronise their own points with their own smiling behaviour, at least in a laboratory environment. Hannah Clark and Dave are exploring whether this pattern of affective-referential synchrony is also displayed when parents communicate with their babies in their own homes.

In her doctoral research, Hannah Clark explored babies’ and toddlers’ understanding of pointing gestures, manipulating, for example, whether or not the bars of a playpen intervened between children and containers that contained rewards. In general, when studying organisms’ understanding of such nonverbal cues, great apes are usually tested in cages, whereas human children or dogs almost never are.

In the study, Hannah found that 18-month-olds were most likely to point to the container where they thought the reward was located, irrespective of whether they were in a playpen or not, whereas 36-month-olds were more likely to directly grab the container where they thought the reward was located, and tended to use pointing more when they were in a playpen than when they were not sitting in a playpen.

The children were equally able to reach for the containers, but the older children were more likely to do it. This shows that small manipulations such as the presence of a barrier can have a large influence on the behaviour of children, depending on their developmental age, and this limits the generalisability of findings to specific experimental circumstances.

Natural history of pointing

Whereas pointing by human children has received a lot of scientific attention over the last 50 years, pointing by adults is less well-studied. Dave Leavens is interested in the natural history of pointing—how people use pointing in day-to-day life.

Pointing in Western populations is primarily performed with the extension of the index finger, but in other cultures, pointing is performed with the nose or with the lips.

Because chimpanzees often point with all fingers extended, some researchers argue that their pointing reflects a less sophisticated cognitive basis, so Dave and his colleagues have been exploring how we can elicit whole-hand pointing from people in England with minor manipulations in the procedure.

For example, in a recent study led by Zoe Flack, we stopped over 700 adult passersby and asked them for directions to prominent local landmarks, finding that when the landmark is in direct line of sight, they pointed primarily with their index fingers, but when the landmark was not visible, they often used pointing with the whole hand to present an initial path to the landmark.

This demonstrates that pointing with the whole hand is a prominent part of the pointing repertoires in this Western population and that it is not associated with any apparent cognitive deficit.