Tricia Striano

Tricia Striano

Professor at the Department of Psychology, Hunter College, City University of New York (CUNY), USA

What is it that makes us human beings – nature or nurture? Sciences and humanities have both long debated this question, but only recently has research emerged that focuses on the ways that young infants learn to communicate, process social cues, and learn from others. This research gives us new insight into the development of human culture.  Understanding the development of the human mind is crucial to providing infants and children with optimal educational  and social conditions. Developmental psychologist Tricia Striano (1973) studies how social cognitive skills are built up – and what we can do to assist infants and children to communicate and learn.  After receiving her Ph.D. from Emory University, Striano became Head of the Independent Research Group on Cultural Ontogeny at the Max Planck Society. In 2004, she was recipient of the Sofja Kovalevskaja Research Prize of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation where she built up the Neurocognition and Development Group at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences. She obtained her Habilitation in 2008 from University Osnabruck and is now at Hunter College in New York City

Breaking the Wall of Infant Development. What Modern Art and Modern Books Can Do for Children and for Autism Research.


On November 9th 1989, I was sitting at the kitchen table with my soccer uniform on.
Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren, Liebe Berliner, I was not certain, which language to begin with today, so I decided to begin with the universal language: Fußball, or soccer, as the Americans call it. When I was younger and playing soccer, my mother would always give me words of encouragement before my games. Her words were careful and constructive, and somehow they came to me when preparing for today. She did not say: keep the ball in control. She did not say: use your head. She did not say: it is just a game. These words might refer to the grand theories in everyday problems, to the walls that stand before us today, and the walls that will go up tomorrow. Before each game my mother said, “Just remember, Honey, the bigger they are, the harder they fall.” What she meant is that it is no excuse to have some big player in front of you who appears to be getting in your way. In many ways, walls are like big soccer players; they don’t fall on their own.

Today I will talk about breaking the walls of infant development, what modern art and modern books can do for children and for autism research. I will begin with some of the science that inspired this theme. Nearly a decade ago, my research team began to question a theory about the ways that human infants interacted with the world. This theory stated that before about twelve months of age, infants engage primarily in dyadic face-to-face interaction, as you see on the left side of the screen. Accordingly, these young infants cannot coordinate attention to the outside world. This, of course, prevented them from cultural learning- or learning from others about language, communication, and the world around them.

As you see on the photo on the right side, by around one year of age, infants clearly coordinate their attention, and link other’s attention to the world. This is called triadic or joint attention. But what is really happening before twelve months of age? In fact, the infant’s ability to coordinate attention and to interact have never been systematically researched.

So, my group in Germany began to test if young infants do engage in joint attention. In this one study, we had several hundred infants come to the laboratory. We tested them at three, six, and nine months of age. In a joint attention condition, the infant interacted with an adult, as she looked back and forth between the infant and an object. In a no joint attention condition, the adult turned away from the object and vocalised.
I am now going to show you two clips from this study. The first is the infant in the joint attention condition, and you should look at the infant’s affect and attention, as she is engaging with this six month old. (Video comments: Maybe looking, smiling, and clearly coordinating the attention. Looking to the object. And now the same infant in the non-joint attention condition; she begins in a dyadic interaction, smiling at first, now the condition begins. Now watch the change in the baby’s affect. So the baby begins smiling, less looking, reliably less and self-comforting- so eating the hand...)

What we had shown is that by three months of age infants were coordinating their attention. But, like big soccer players, big theories don’t generally fall with ease. We then needed to go on and show that infants were in fact using these cues- so weren’t just sensitive to them, but were using them in a functional way. In order to answer that question we set up a situation like you see here: an infant is either in a joint attention condition or a non-joint attention condition, and an interaction phase. We present the visual cue towards this old toy, and in a test phase we present the infant a new toy. What we are expecting is that if social cue is influencing the infant’s learning, then he is going to look differently at these objects as a function of condition. You can look on the website for further details.

I would just like to show you now an image of a seven-month-old in that study. So, in the joint attention condition: (Video: now the test phase begins; we present the original object as well as the new object. We are going to be measuring how much the baby is looking at each object.) (Audience laughter). That gives you a sense.

What we found is that by the middle of the first year, joint attention cues did, in fact, help infants to learn as early as five to six months. At the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, we were then able to go and see that already by two and three months of age the infants brain is reacting to objects that have been cued by joint attention cues- even though we cannot see this in their behavioural response.
So these findings have led to brand new questions that we are currently working on. From my own research we know that if the environments are too complex, infants fail to learn. Infants need well-adapted environments to develop, think, and to create. This has led me into the field of neuroesthetics and to questions about how the brain processes art and the impact that this may have on early cognition and development. I think that such knowledge is going to be essential in developing a more optimal learning environment.

Toward this goal, we have been working with emerging artists to develop environments that are inspired by some of these principles of early cognition and learning. My research group is now beginning to look at the neuro-corelates of art to understand how such processes impact the brain as well as behaviour. We also think that these findings may be useful in identifying more optimal environments for children and also those who may be at risk or have autism. We will keep you posted on these findings.

What I can tell you is that by two to three months of age, the infant brain is scaffolded by joint attention cues. These results are critical in terms of understanding early atypical development and also in terms of researching better diagnostic tools or disorders such as autism. In my view, the best way to design intervention and more innovative diagnostic tools is through the study of early development.

In addition to knowing that the young brain is processing and using social cues, I hope you already know how your young child, your new grandson, your niece or nephew, perceives and processes size, shapes, colour, biological motion, and language. I hope you know when your child will begin to babble, to begin to smile, and to speak his first words. I hope you know the early signs of autism. If you do not know all of these answers, or if you did learn something new from my talk today, then you have identified a very big wall.

It is the wall separating research from public knowledge, and I would like to tear it down. What better place to break this wall than here in Berlin? After years of being in the laboratory and feeling that our findings were not getting out to the public, I wanted to develop a solution. The solution is research-based books that educate a parent and educators about infant and child development, and at the same time these are designed for infants and children and apply many of our research findings that you have heard about.
If there is one thing that my research shows, it is that there is no replacement for parents and for the time we spend with children. As I showed you today, infants learn best in the context of other people, and they also learn best when they have developmentally appropriate environments.

To me, research is like playing soccer. Sometimes we need to slow the ball and get ourselves into position in order to make our research more meaningful and to achieve our goals. I think it is fair to say that if nobody understood the game of soccer, nobody would watching the game. The same holds true for science. I think it is time to get it out of the laboratory and to share it with the public that it was intended for.

In closing, I would like to thank the Einstein Foundation for this opportunity to share your 20th anniversary. I would also like to acknowledge the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, and the Max Planck society who supported my early career and the careers of dozens of young scientists who were trained in my laboratory in Germany.

I spent the first seven years of my career in Leipzig, in the former East of Germany. Leipzig continues to grow and develop in much a way like the infant brain. These rapid developments require complex interaction and scaffolding. You have now developed a place for world-class science, for arts and culture, and not to mention an arena for world cup soccer. Like watching a good soccer match, I look forward to watching Germany as they show the world how to make the next walls fall.