Category Archives: Joint Attention

Earth, Wind, Fire, Water…Fire wins for attention.

Campfire with sparks in Anttoora, Finland.

Image via Wikipedia

Last weekend when I was camping with some friends I was noticing how the layout of the campsite directed people’s attention.  It seemed as if no one paid attention to the surrounding scenery (the forest, the lakes, the mountains) because the focal point of the campsite was the fire pit.  Everything in the campsite oriented around the fire; even the way we chose to set up camp centripetally focused on the fire pit.  Tents faced the fire. The camp table faced the fire.

I found this directed attention kind of odd because intentionally, the fire pit was placed so that the background scenery would be the lake and the mountains across the lake.  But instead of attending to the scenery, everyone was rapt in attention and staring at the flames.  Fire mesmerized us all.

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Making eye contact as one form of coordination between store clerks and shoppers

Yesterday (a busy Saturday at 4pm) I went to a clothing store with my wife. While I was shopping I was almost run into by 4 employees who I felt were not looking where they were going. Two other employees were standing with clothing racks such that they blocked the entire aisle (these were main aisles too) and I had to weave my way through a maze of aisles to effectively navigate around the workers.

This struck me as odd.

Before I go any further, let me say that I have participated in other cultures where eye contact is dispreferred and this is not one of those situations.

I mentioned to my wife that no one was looking up to see where they were going and that no one had made eye contact with me. She said “maybe they have other ways of seeing where they are going.” I responded that I was not talking about whether or not they were able to sense obstacles in their paths, but it was more a matter of coordination.

I don’t meant coordination in terms of a person’s ability to balance or juggle or chew gum and walk; I meant coordination in terms of the social performance of a joint activity, in this case, negotiating aisle-etiquette between two people (let alone the fact that this incident was between store workers and a store customer). This is a matter of whether or not two people are able to jointly indicate to each other that they are aware of the presence of the other person so that mutually informed decisions about walking and passing can be established. As it stands, even if those employees sensed my presence their posture, lack of eye-contact, and aloof busyness prohibited them from confirming to me (and probably other shoppers) that they were not about to run me over.

Had they taken the brief 500 or so milliseconds to make eye contact with me, we both could have coordinated our actions any neither of us would have had to sacrifice energy to avoid the other.

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Perpetual Epicentral Density Sphere

Dandelion seeds (achenes) can be carried long ...

Image via Wikipedia

The Perpetual Epicentral Density Sphere is a unpublished model of cognition that I began developing in the late ninety’s and early years of 2000 as a result of my training in linguistics and anthropology.  I worked on it before I knew what Cognitive Linguistics actually was and, in fact, it was part of my conversion to CogLing.  With a nod to remix culture and assemblage theory, this model tried to blend together several validated models of discourse and culture in a super feeble attempt to bridge the epistemological gulf between realism and relativism and explain the complete communication picture in a systematic and procedurally elegant way (read: quasi-arbitrary).  This was the early days of my interest in systems theory, but I was really naive about the complexity of complexity.  Basically, the more that I worked on the model the more I came to see that Cognitive Linguistics already had working solutions to a lot of the questions I was addressing.  In fact, when I read back through my notes now, I see that it is actually a model of attention and dynamic construal.  I won’t tell you anything more about the mechanics right now, but I expect that one day I will pull it back off the shelf and show it to the world; in the mean time, here is an analogy from my original manuscript (part of which is in this book) for you to chew on:

“Pick the white puff of seeds on a dandelion clock, pick the stem and hold it in your hand, and meticulously and decidedly, remove every single floating seed, one-by-one until there is only one remaining.  This is what the first thought does when it moves to the second thought.  You have deselected every seed, ignored them all but one, the one you highlighted, the one you lit up – the one you selected.  This, the lone seed on the stem, a sphere at the base, the rod line of the seed body, and the end of the seed a circle of tiny white hairs that extend radially from the stem in many many directions, this seed is a snapshot. You are holding in your hand the most natural visible representation of how your thoughts live and travel.  Now put that last seed up to your mouth and do the wind’s job and send that seed floating.  Where it lands it either develops or dies, just like your thought.”

“If you can take a line of thought and follow it to every dead-end, out every open door and window, to every destination – and catch it resting – you will see simply and plain how lawless and unruly even simple thoughts are in their brief lives.”

You can view images from my portfolio that were inspired through this process at:

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On walking and mediated embodied experience in ethnographic map making

Girl walking in a beach. Porto Covo, Portugal.

Image via Wikipedia

Recently I’ve been thinking about my spatial experience of my contextual environment and about what I have learned over the years in consciously encountering space as a user of space, a creator of space, and a participant in community through space.  I am thinking about this as I am getting ready to do some tutoring on domain mapping in ethnographic research.  Here is a summary of my spatial experience.

As a child most of my experience with space was either moving through it on foot or by being driven around in a car.  Toss in the stroller, occasional plane ride, boating, crutches, sledding, riding a bicycle, but by and large WALKING and RIDING dominated my childhood experience of space.

As an adult I would live in cities like Chicago and Honolulu, places where the infrastructure encouraged walking.  This changed my understanding of terrain, and walking became my primary vantage point for my movement through space, although each place did have new modes of movement; Chicago had a train, Honolulu had surf boards.

Doing fieldwork in West Africa I would never drive; I saw most of sub-Saharan Africa in a van, or a Volkswagen, or a Renault, but I was always the passenger.  At least I could stare out the window and imagine what it was like at a walking pace.

Where I live now has a walkability score of 25 out of 100.  Where I lived in Chicago had a score of 98, Hawai’i had a score of 78; clearly my current 25 is pitiful in comparison.

To be fair, where I live now there are some residents with a score of 82, so, it is not like walking is precluded by living here, just that it is not easy for everyone (like me).  I walked home from work once and it took me three hours.

This has restricted my daily routine movement to driving.  These days I experience my landscape from a vehicle (much like my Africa passenger days), but this time I don’t even get to look around and pay attention to what zooms past my face; no, I only pay attention to that which is necessary to avoid collisions.

Driving has seriously hindered my sense of place.  I used to spend a lot of time walking, exploring, noticing things at street level, at a pace that let me participate and observe; being a car driver has forced me to give up participation with a place in favor of being a consumer of that place, the road is just a conduit.

Instead of participating with the place I now participate with my driving peers as we consume the street on our way to our various destinations.  The interactive dynamic is not with the people who reside in a place, but with people who routinely pass through the place.  This is like the boat that is moored to the riverbank, the boat might not move but the river has certainly changed.

Compared to the speed with which I now drive through my neighborhoods, walking is practically standing still.  Walking is being the boat moored to the bank; driving is the rushing river.  And the places I drive through do not really change either, but I have nothing to do with the neighborhoods which I zoom through, not the shops, not the landscape, not the people.

I need to stop driving so much.

I need to learn to walk, again.

I need to experience the physical crust of earth and to encounter a place with my feet, unmediated by round rubber tires and a gas pedal.

Being a driver has abstracted my encounter with a place by removing the minutia and patient tiny details made visible to the walking man.  I say “man” because I speak of myself; I was a walking man, like James Taylor, but now, where I live, if you walk expect to be stared at, honked at, yelled at by crazy fun-loving child-drivers, and occasionally the target of someone’s empty sodacan/coffeecup/waterbottle hurled out the window with an insult.  I am serious; walking is stigmatizing, and dangerous.

This is partly why I drive places.

My level of attention to place as a driver does not decompose into lower level experiences with place like it does on a stroll where those small experiences gradiently build up to become a walking journey, instead I pay more attention to how many red lights have impeded my progress.

Walking for me does more than serve the function of travel between places; I walk to know a place.

When I move somewhere new (or even visit from out of town), the first thing I do is walk around a place, in an ever widening gyre, a scroll stroll uncurling through a city emanating away from my apartment or hotel room.  I walk around and I get a feel for what surrounds me.  I don’t even look at a map until I have learned the map through my feet.  By doing this I start to learn my place in the broader context, and this is where you encounter the joys of a place, its people, its vitality, its curiosities; by walking you learn the identity of a place.

This afternoon I thought about how walking is natural for me as an ethnographer; in fact, walking is essential.  And one of the reasons it is so important is that it helps in making maps of a place, in mapping the domains and the various spatial relations found in that place.  Sure, you can sit somewhere and draw a map of everything you see, but I promise you, if you walk around a place and look first with your feet, your map will be more detailed, more accurate, and more relevant as you come to capture the reality which each participant experiences as they use that space.

I might have seen a lot of sub-Saharan West Africa, but it doesn’t mean too much to me, and I certainly could only attempt to map it out from an approximation of the various landmarks I happened to have noticed from the window.  This is because the dynamic and progressive movement of a vehicle is that your sense of figure-ground organization is constantly shifting, and it goes as fast as the driver feels is necessary.  But when you walk around, if something becomes figural in your field of vision, and you feel it is important, you get to pause for a moment and reflect on the significance of what you have seen.  This kind of intentional embodied experience is vital for making sense of a place.

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A Layered Approach to a Common Ground Reading

I just posted another paper on the Social Science Research Network, it is an analysis of a multi-layered communication situation using Herbert Clark’s notion of the Common Ground.  Here is the abstract:

In a January 27, 2011 interview on the National Public Radio radio show Fresh Air (hosted by Terry Gross), guest Robert Spitzer made this comment: “Brazil doesn’t have a second amendment in their constitution.” However, as of May 2010 the Citizen Constitution (Brazil’s constitution since 1988) has been amended 64 times, which necessarily includes a second instance of an amendment being made. This fact renders a literal reading of Spitzer’s remark to be infelicitous. Instead, it is argued that Spitzer’s remark utilized the architecture of the situation to engage participants in a joint activity of maximizing the common ground.

This essay explores the role of a shared common ground in layered communication situations which enables participants to understand speaker construals. This falls within the domain of joint attention and pragmatic analysis of communication situations. Clark’s (1996) notion of Common Ground will be used to analyze the situation and untangle the communication layers to question what each participant needs to understand in order to orient on the intended meaning of the speaker. Using attested data from a radio interview, this paper explores three layers of communication and identifies the various aspects of a common ground that are required for a proper reading of a speaker’s intended meaning. This common ground is argued to be essential in the process of the negotiation of meaning. What follows is an initial exposition of the methodological process in this analysis, followed by a situating of the context for the data, and finally the application of the analytical method to the data with appropriate conclusions.

Attention Hot Heads (of any stripe): I want to be clear about this, I am analyzing the structure and content of someone’s statements about the Second Amendment; I am not making any kind of evaluation (positive, negative, or neutral) of the content of the surrounding political discourse about gun laws.  I will not debate in the comments about any aspect of this political discourse, but I will debate aspects of my analysis and of Clark’s notion of the common ground.

Download my paper here:

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How Children’s Overgeneralizations in Construction Use Informs Second Language Acquisition and the Negotiation of Meaning

The acquisition of abstract grammatical constructions represents the maturation of a child’s linguistic productivity.  This productivity means that a child can take constructions that have already been learned and extend the application of the construction by using different words.

One way to identify if the child has utilized a new construction in a productive way is to look for overgeneralizations in the application of the construction.  For instance, things that sound like mistakes in a child’s speech might actually represent the analogical extension of a learned construction into new lexical territory to attempt to communicate something that the child understands, but which is outside of the acquired bank of constructions.  Children sometimes use intransitive verbs in a transitive construction.  While this overgeneralization of the transitive construction is ungrammatical, it does represent an attempt at productive use of learned lexical concepts in learned constructions.  Adults encountering overgeneralizations may be able to determine what the child is attempting to communicate as the actual utterance represents an encoding of a concept with the construction as the foundation of meaning with the intransitive verb as the domain of meaning.  “He falled me down” (Bowerman 1982, cited in Tomasello 2003) is an attested case which indicates that the child has not acquired the appropriate transitive verb to describe the situation of being knocked over, even though the child has acquired the transitive construction.

This is a strategy of innovation in conversation, and may have insight for second language acquisition; when a construction for a particular concept is known, but the lexical particulars are unknown, adapting lexical particulars that account for the general concept and using them in a known construction permits the fielding of the ill-formed utterance and enabling the negotiation of meaning to take place.

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Intention Directing, Self-Reporting, and the Transitive Constructions in Early Childhood Grammar (preschool, 2-5 years old)

Group of children in a primary school in Paris

Image via Wikipedia

Since constructions are learned through usage, constructions are accumulated as individual entities that begin to form collections and these collections of constructions begin to exhibit type frequency.  I think that this type frequency represents an aspect of the nature of child conceptualization, and indeed, it enables the communication of conceptualization in relational behavior from early ages.  This post explores a little about my extension of Tomasello’s analysis of the abstract transitive construction from his book Constructing a Language.

Tomasello divides a list of verbs used in the transitive constructions into four categories: Having Objects, Moving or Transforming Objects, Acting on Objects, and Psychological Activities (150, Tomasello: 2003).  These are not productive constructions until around 3,5; at which point children begin to use the transitive construction with verbs outside of the list presented by Tomasello.  Children use the verbs to indicate Agent and Patient roles in the [Trans-SUBJ Trans-VERB Trans-OBJ] transitive construction.  Looking through the list of verbs presented in Tomasello’s text it is easy to see that children have subjective conceptualizations and are able to begin articulating these ideas.  Verbs like: mean, know, like, help, need, and want represent a complex internal awareness of the interface between the physical/objective world and the mental/subjective world.  This understanding of the descriptive functions of the transitive construction enable the child to foray into relational transactions that involve intention-directing and launch the child into participation in the social world with the means to assert their identity as communicative entities in conversation.  These constructions allow self-reporting of internal states and an articulation of desire that transcends the physical environment.  The child can now make declarations, but also utter imperatives regarding subjective concepts to effect changes in the concrete world.

Interestingly, the early abstract transitive constructions allow the child to place varying degrees of focus on the elements used in the construction.  This is a salience-determining skill that allows the child to manipulate meaning in relation to the Agent and Patient roles, which may be a precursor to learning other constructions like the Passive construction.  Additionally, the emergence of this ability may represent the manifestation of figure-ground distinctions in early child grammar.

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Foundational Cognitive Skills that Babies Need in Language Development

Reading on a Friday night

Image by mr brown via Flickr

As mentioned (yesterday’s post) three skills emerge from this acceptance of the triadic perspective:

1) Joint Attention Frame; 2)Intention Reading; and 3) Cultural Learning (Pattern Finding).  Joint Attention is the ability to coordinate attention with another individual on a third entity.  These third entities move from strictly concrete entities to more abstract entities as time goes by.  Without the ability to have a joint attention frame the transfer of knowledge would be impossible and the ability to converse with others in a meaningful way is equally impossible.  The process of intention reading is critical to understanding how others can have their behaviors influenced and likewise how the self can be influenced by the intentions of others.  Although not explicitly stated in Tomasello’s 2003 text, this particular cognitive skill would seem to be the foundation of basic relational strategies like the establishment of trust and credibility.  The final skill is pattern finding which enables cultural learning as the infant observes behavioral, intentional, and relational patterns in the contextual cultural community.  The child develops a sense for how things are done by intentional agents as the child attends to the patterns demonstrated through the everyday lives of those intentional agents with whom the child relates.

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Baby Behaviors Around 9-12 Months Enable “Conversation”

Joint Attention

Image by jeanbaptisteparis via Flickr

Infants move from a strictly dyadic sort of attentional phenomena to a triadic behavioral attention at around 9-12 months of age.  This opens the world for infants to allow them to consider other people as intentional agents with whom it is possible to interact.  This provides a platform for the infants to begin engaging in a relational way as a precursor to conversation including new ways of referencing the world around them and new ways of coordinating attention of the outside intentional agents.  Without this development into the capacity for accessing a triadic perspective children would be unable to operate in a joint attention frame, would be unable to read intention, and would not maximize cultural learning – all of which depend on recognizing the other-than-self as self-motivated.

I added this picture because it represents Joint Attention…now, substitute the three adults for an adult and an infant – this represents the ability to focus in a joint attention frame so as to develop a sense of common ground.  Stay tuned…more to come.

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