Pointing originates from touch


Study sheds new light on how babies start to communicate. Natalie Parletta reports.


Pointing is the first gesture children make where it is clear they are trying to draw someone’s attention to something.

Catherine Delahaye / Getty Images

Researchers have discovered that the uniquely human act of pointing, which appears in the first nine to 14 months of age, originates from touch.

This finding sheds more light on the established phenomenon that pointing lays the groundwork for learning language; children who are delayed in pointing are also slower to develop language skills.

Humans communicate to “tell” each other things, says lead author Cathal O’Madagain from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany.

“The very familiar scenario where two humans jointly attend to an object or event so that they talk about it is at the heart of human communication,” he explains.

Pointing is the first gesture children make where it is clear they are trying to draw someone’s attention to something. For that reason, O’Madagain says, it could be perceived as their first “words”.

Before this develops, infants as young as six months across cultures naturally use a pointing hand shape to touch objects.

As they start using the pointing gesture more often, this exploratory touch decreases. Therefore, the authors hypothesise that pointing is somehow “taking over” from touch.

To test their theory, O’Madagain and co-author Brent Strickland, from Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris, devised a set of three experimental games with four groups of volunteers ranging from infants to adults, as described in the journal Science Advances.

In the first game, the researchers found that when pointing at an object, participants across all age groups arranged their fingers as though they were aiming to touch it rather than creating a direct vector arrow towards it.

When the second experiment compelled them to point to an object at an angle, participants turned their wrists to match the angle as if they were trying to touch it.

Finally, when watching someone pointing at one object but looking at another, young children selected the object they were looking at as the target. This confirmed that they interpreted the gestures as attempts to touch something and not as arrows.

This is the first study to demonstrate that pointing originates in touch. Why would it be so?

People tend to look at what they touch, linking it to visual attention. O’Madagain believes that once infants learn they can draw people’s attention to something by touching it, they can then “aim” to touch an object in the distance by pointing at it to achieve the same outcome.

He says anyone can easily try it for themselves.

“Most people we talk to are surprised to learn that they point at objects in the distance as if touching them, or that they rotate their wrists when pointing at objects at odd angles – but are inclined to quickly agree when they check.”

Before now it was unclear how these gestures arose, he adds, “and hence how this fundamentally important ability of humans to coordinate attention comes about.”

“We think we have solved that riddle.”

  1. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1551-6709.2011.01228.x
  2. https://doi.10.1126/sciadv.aav2558
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