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Pointing to nothing? Empty places prime infants' attention to absent objects

Liszkowski, U., & Ramenzoni, V. C. (2015). Pointing to nothing? Empty places prime infants' attention to absent objects. Infancy, 20, 433-444. doi:10.1111/infa.12080.
People routinely point to empty space when referring to absent entities. These points to "nothing" are meaningful because they direct attention to places that stand in for specific entities. Typically, the meaning of places in terms of absent referents is established through preceding discourse and accompanying language. However, it is unknown whether nonlinguistic actions can establish locations as meaningful places, and whether infants have the capacity to represent a place as standing in for an object. In a novel eye-tracking paradigm, 18-month-olds watched objects being placed in specific locations. Then, the objects disappeared and a point directed infants' attention to an emptied place. The point to the empty place primed infants in a subsequent scene (in which the objects appeared at novel locations) to look more to the object belonging to the indicated place than to a distracter referent. The place-object expectations were strong enough to interfere when reversing the place-object associations. Findings show that infants comprehend nonlinguistic reference to absent entities, which reveals an ontogenetic early, nonverbal understanding of places as representations of absent objects
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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

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