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Prelinguistic infants are sensitive to space-pitch associations found across cultures

Dolscheid, S., Hunnius, S., Casasanto, D., & Majid, A. (2014). Prelinguistic infants are sensitive to space-pitch associations found across cultures. Psychological Science, 25(6), 1256-1261. doi:10.1177/0956797614528521.
People often talk about musical pitch using spatial metaphors. In English, for instance, pitches can be “high” or “low” (i.e., height-pitch association), whereas in other languages, pitches are described as “thin” or “thick” (i.e., thickness-pitch association). According to results from psychophysical studies, metaphors in language can shape people’s nonlinguistic space-pitch representations. But does language establish mappings between space and pitch in the first place, or does it only modify preexisting associations? To find out, we tested 4-month-old Dutch infants’ sensitivity to height-pitch and thickness-pitch mappings using a preferential-looking paradigm. The infants looked significantly longer at cross-modally congruent stimuli for both space-pitch mappings, which indicates that infants are sensitive to these associations before language acquisition. The early presence of space-pitch mappings means that these associations do not originate from language. Instead, language builds on preexisting mappings, changing them gradually via competitive associative learning. Space-pitch mappings that are language-specific in adults develop from mappings that may be universal in infants.
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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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