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Joint AttentionReview - Joint Attention
New Developments in Psychology, Philosophy of Mind, and Social Neuroscience
by Axel Seemann (Editor)
MIT Press, 2011
Review by R.A. Goodrich, Ph.D.
Jan 22nd 2013 (Volume 17, Issue 4)

Our adult intuitions about the notion of giving or paying attention are relatively secure.  We know that attending demands an object and that we cannot effectively describe the process of attending without referring to the object of our attention.  We also know we cannot pay attention without knowing that we are doing so and knowing under some description or other what we are attending to.  Because attending can take so many forms, it is technically regarded as a polymorphous concept (not unlike expecting or practicing).  In some circumstances, our activities count as attending to some object; in other circumstances, they may not.  But because attending is an activity, that is, it applies to what we are doing, it takes time--even if intermittent or interrupted--and can be undertaken in a particular way--be it calmly or cautiously.  It is not, however, a matter of searching: it is more "listening to" than "listening for," and so need not be done deliberately. Where objects of our attention are perceptible, we can specify the sensory or perceptual activities by which we attend; where objects of attention are by contrast thoughts or feelings, we can specify the cognitive activities involved.  Finally, because we can teach someone to attend to something, whether they end by doing so willingly or unwillingly, we can also distinguish between the roles taken towards our own activities: attending to them as an onlooker or spectator or as an agent or participant.

That said, readers of Joint Attention: New Developments in Psychology, Philosophy of Mind, and Social Neuroscience might expect that there should be little difficulty in making the transition to joint attention and, after having it defined, explore its development, distinctiveness, and importance by way of the philosophical, psychological, and neurological contributions from both sides of the Atlantic that Axel Seemann has collected.  As Seemann himself declares, his anthology's alignment with previous volumes on the topic continues the crucial realization that joint attention plays a pivotal role in understanding the mind whilst aiming at "a continued discourse that would be both empirically informed and conceptually sophisticated" (vii).  To that extent, it promises to enrich readers from each of the above-mentioned disciplines as they encounter the vigorous debates taking place in the other two disciplines.

Yet lines of tension in the study of joint attention quickly become apparent.  Seemann's introduction immediately concedes that "no generally accepted definition is available" and consequently that there is no "well-ordered overarching research program" (1). By contrast, claims Seemann, intellectual debates have converged in one crucial respect: they have shifted from "a solipsistic conception of mind" towards one that maintains "mental phenomena as inherently social" whereby "our mental development is shaped by interactions with others" (2).  By contrast, too, Seemann's eighth chapter promotes a "pragmatic" approach to joint attention, one that relates "perceptual experience" to "agency" (183).  Unfortunately, his approach is neither justified against other alternatives nor defended against unspecified "very substantial objections" (187).

The initial part of this critique will sample some of the more thought-provoking tensions in discussions of joint attention, discussions grouped by Seemann into seven chapters on definitions (21ff.), six on processes (205ff.), and three on significance (393ff.).  The concluding part will turn to the continuing deference shown to the implications of John Campbell's philosophical work to which eight of the chapters refer and to the curious neglect by all contributors to this anthology of the challenge posed by neurolinguist J.L. Locke.

I

Timothy Racine's second chapter--which some readers might more profitably consult as a closing one--rapidly identifies a set of flaws bedeviling debate over the past generation exemplified by Michael Tomasello and followers.  He accuses researchers of confusing looser and stricter senses of joint attention.  Targeting those adhering to the stricter sense, Racine finds them to be operating within an explanatory dichotomy that characterizes current "rich" cognitive and previous "lean" behavioral approaches, both of which are prey to "a misconception about the relation between behavior and mind" (22).  What both approaches constantly ignore is that mental concepts such as intention, desire, and belief are analyzable "independently of the context of attribution" of these concepts to individuals (22).  Next, Racine reminds us of the need to separate "definitional issues" from putative "causal explanations" (25).  So, for example, whether cued looking and gesturing between the infant Alyssa and her nonna counts as jointly attending to something is not tantamount to whether re-enforcement for such activities causes it or not.  Thirdly, there is also the need to untangle a welter of intersecting notions. For instance, whereas attending and the state of being conscious are "mutually defining" or internally related, intention and consciousness are not (28).  Intention, by contrast, is internally related to actions manifesting it; indeed, it "cannot be identified independently of an intended action" (29).  Unlike infant Alyssa's attention to her toes, intention does not have an actual beginning or ending; it does not endure for a measurable period of time; it does not vary in intensity.  Moreover, whilst an action can occur by way of planning and/or choosing alternatives, it can equally occur without any prior or accompanying deliberation.  In short, cognitive analyses of joint attention are peculiarly vulnerable to conflating actions, consciousness, and intentions in the service of attributing toddlers, if not infants, with so-called theories of other minds.

Without pursuing Racine's trenchant criticisms further, enough has been disclosed here to reveal at least two undercurrents within Seemann's collection.  Firstly, many of its contributors do attempt to address research drawing upon other disciplinary frameworks, for instance Shepherd & Cappuccio (205ff.), Hopkins & Taglialatela (243ff.), and Costantini & Sinigaglia (431ff.), all of whom explore seeming commonalties between simians and humans. Ironically, the fact that the first and third pair of foregoing researchers appeal to "mirror neurons"--originally attributed to macaque monkeys and nowadays the basis of generalizations about the supposedly innate cellular structure of human brains and its correlation with specific kinds of experience--remains unchallenged.  Despite the conceptual sensitivities displayed by, for example, Kartsen Stueber and Elizabeth Pacherie in the eleventh and fourteenth chapters respectively, neither question the feasibility of such appeals.  Secondly and relatedly, there is an attendant pre-occupation with assessing methodological strengths and weaknesses, for example, by David Leavens (43ff.) and Pacherie (343ff.) who collectively expose shortcomings in the empirical data employed by others, the latter aiming to demonstrate that dependency upon "cognitive, perceptual, or sensorimotor" cues "should be seen as complementary rather than as rival" although, oddly, verbal cues are ignored (349).

Readers are also given opportunities to review a wealth of previously developed hypotheses.  Included amongst these are, for example, hypotheses about the bodily and emotional inter-subjectivity between infant and carer underpinning the emergence of "shared experience" propounded by Colwyn Trevarthen (73ff.) and about the limits to inter-subjective engagement in pathological cases of the autistic syndrome proposed by the Hobsons (115ff.).  There are also hypotheses about the distinction between "shared" and "parallel" attention as formulated by Carpenter & Leibal (159ff.) and about the integrative role of first-person imaginative empathy and reasoned beliefs in the emergence of inter-subjective engagement and understanding of other minds as forged by Stueber (265ff.).  Of course, none of these is immune to further questioning. If, say, the adolescent Nina in Montréal and her beloved Marco in New York were both wistfully staring at the full moon and texting each other of the fact the following morning, is this a case of shared attention or shared communication or both?  Or again, does Nina imaginatively need to entertain Marco's beliefs about their mutual passion and identify them as her own in order to understand them as the reasons for Marco's action of staring at the moon that night?

Let us complete the first part of this review of Joint Attention by returning to another challenging line of tension emanating from contributions by Shaun Gallagher and Daniel Hutto.  Hutto's more detailed chapter dismantles key assumptions behind the orthodox view that acquiring the concept of belief counts as evidence for the existence amongst three year-olds of a "theory" of mind, a theory supposedly demonstrated by how they develop the ability to explain and predict the behavior of others from a third-person perspective.  Countering this tendency to assign conceptual prowess to infants and toddlers, Hutto deploys the alternative notion of intentional attitudes which can be demonstrated by infant Alyssa encountering and registering someone or something.  Such goal-directed intentional attitudes are not propositional ones such as believing and desiring nor are they "some subpart of [her] response" (321) nor are they replete with "any kind of conceptual understanding" (329).

Also contrary to the vast majority of contributors, Gallagher contends that joint attention is not so much "a case of coordinating mental or psychological states" (294).  Construed this way, joint attention frequently becomes entangled by "infinite iterations of beliefs" which threaten to become "decoupled from action" and "beyond what is available perceptually and in the interactive context" (295-296). Instead, he claims, we should opt for "seeing intentions and dispositions in the embodied behaviors...movements...facial expressions...gestures, and actions of others" (298).  Like footballers "continuously monitoring one another's attention," we operate within a "field" that acts as the physical and human context for our "practical intentions" (299). Such capacities gain in subtlety and sophistication, concludes Gallagher, through our "communicative and narrative practices" (301).  Presumably not every kind of co-ordinated or collective action (the topic of Pacherie's analysis (343ff.)) is sufficient for joint attention otherwise we would have to concede every gaggle of geese and flock of larks as unqualified instances of it.  Nor, as mentioned earlier, is it obvious that intentions can be totally stripped from all our co-ordinated actions, therefore suggesting that the mental or psychological domain is not as easily eliminated as Gallagher claims. Finally, the role played by narrative practices remains tantalisingly unspecified.  What, from a developmental perspective, would an Alyssa acquire from listening to her nonna's narratives and what kinds of stories are crucial to joint attention (even when allowing that narratives themselves can act as objects of joint attention)?

II

          As the first part of this paper finds, the lack of an agreed definition of joint attention seems to multiply the lines of tension in Axel Seemann's collection. Yet half the contributors to Joint Attention allude to John Campbell. Why the attraction to Campbell?  His sixteenth chapter proposes that joint attention of the type "Nina and Marco are jointly attending to the moon" should be construed in experiential, relational terms that are conscious, personal, and non-propositional for both parties (e.g. 416).  More fundamentally, joint attention should also be regarded as a "primitive" or irreducible unmediated relationship. On that basis, Campbell asserts that conscious joint attention licenses the following: how reference to an object is generated; how introspective apprehension of it is accommodated; how confronting and adopting different perspectives of it can emerge (as Moll & Meltzoff maintain in the fifteenth chapter) once an Alyssa has first identified what her nonna is attending; and how rational co-ordinated action can be depicted.

          By Campbell returning us to the experiential beginnings of joint attention, perhaps its developmental portrayal has much to gain by considering the one framework that might help synthesize the lines of tension detected in Seemann's collection.  Consider, for instance, the infant's affective and expanding responses to others attending to different kinds of objects carefully tabulated in Vasudevi Reddy's sixth chapter (145 & 147).  However, it, as does the volume at large, overlooks the affective and behavioral, linguistic and cognitive developmental framework by which to trace the emergence of joint attention, a framework investigated by John Locke during the 'nineties. In sum, transformations of attention and joint attention remain rooted in the very development of speech accompanying and then detached from action. Infant Alyssa's world is saturated in the speech of others and self.  Axel Seemann's anthology Joint Attention, to echo Hutto's conclusion, is "a start" towards "new possibilities for thinking about this important topic" (336).

 

© 2013 R.A. Goodrich

 

R.A. Goodrich teaches in the School of Communication & Creative Arts, Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia, co-edits the online refereed arts-practice journal, Double Dialogues, and co-ordinates with Maryrose Hall a longitudinal project investigating behavioural, cognitive, and linguistic aspects of higher-functioning children within the autistic spectrum of disorders.


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