Getting to the point of early brain development

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Young children are more likely to follow the direction of a pointing finger than other signs, according to psychologists, who are keen to hear from nurseries to put their theory into practice.


Researchers concluded that young children found directional signs harder to follow than directions of pointing fingers

Researchers from the University of Lincoln found that younger children’s eye movements responded faster when looking at pictures of a pointing finger than at those of arrows, or eyes gazing in a particular direction.

Using eye-tracking technology, scientists observed the speed children aged three to ten reacted to different visual cues while playing a specially-designed computer game.

The children were told to follow the movements of a cartoon character called Buzzy Bee, and not to pay attention to ‘directional cues’, ie. following the eyes, arrows and pointing fingers also flashing on the screen.

As Buzzy Bee jumped around eye trackers recorded where the child’s gaze followed, as well as how quickly and accurately it followed Buzzy, when for example, an arrow, pointed the wrong way.

The findings revealed that the three- to five-year-olds responded to the direction of a pointing finger rather than arrows or eyes pointing left or right.

Lead researcher and head of the School of Psychology Professor Tim Hodgson told Nursery World that the findings could have practical implications, for example, using 'a big foam pointing finger' to direct children to a particular area of the nursery rather than using an arrow.

'In a nursery environment using a pointing finger could be more effective than using other signage, like an arrow,' he said.

‘One of the big questions and an idea around for a while is that the human brain is an innately social organ. So that perhaps we are born already programmed to respond to social cues, for example if a person is looking in another direction we would follow their gaze. But this research doesn't support that.'

There was a tendency for the three- to five-year-olds to respond to the direction of the finger rather than following the bee and because it distracted them it slowed their reactions down, he added. The finger had a much stronger effect on the speed of their eye movements and they were 50 to 60 milliseconds slower to redirect their gaze in the right direction.

‘That’s actually 1/20th of a second, which in biological terms is a big effect,’ said Professor Hodgson.

'What this shows is that making the link between what we see and what we should do comes later in childhood. So you’re not born with it, it must be learnt.

'Three- to five-year-olds only showed a strong response to the pointing fingers. But the six- and seven-year-olds reacted equally to all types of visual cues. This means by that age they have learnt to respond to the signs they see at their school, which they are still learning to interpret at age three to five.’

The research also showed that younger children lingered longer on the pictures of the eyes in the middle of the screen than on the arrows and pointing fingers.

‘The youngest children did sometimes get very "stuck" looking in the middle of the screen when the pictures of the eyes appeared and this suggests a pre-programmed interest in socially relevant images like faces, but this is different thing to learning to move your own eyes to look towards where someone else is looking, which is a skill we think comes later,’ said Professor Hodgson.

  • The research was part of the University of Lincoln’s ‘Summer Scientist’ week, organised for local families to take part in fun, psychological research. You can view an example of the experiment on Tim Hodgson’s YouTube channel
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