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friday :: march 5, 2004
others' intentions

The ability to read the intentions of other people is fundamental to human thought. We automatically interpret a person's behavior not in terms of the physical motions involved, but instead in terms of the goals or intentions that give rise to these motions. Research at the University of Chicago shows that this basic human capacity begins to emerge early in the first year of life.

Amanda Woodward's work shows that babies understand some actions not as purely physical motions through space, but rather as being goal-directed. Initially, infants' ability to understand actions as goal-directed appears to be specific to very familiar concrete actions, like grasping. Later in the first year infants begin to understand two other important aspects of intentional action. For one, they become aware of the invisible connection between a person and the object at which she looks; that is, they have the foundation for understanding that others can attend to objects in the world even when they do not physically act on them. In addition, babies begin to understand that separate actions can be organized by an overarching plan. For example, babies might infer that when a person grasps the lid of a box, his goal is not the box itself, but rather the object inside the box.

These developments may provide the foundation for children's ability to learn from their caregivers. During the second year of life, children acquire critical abilities, including language and culturally appropriate behaviors, by observing the actions of adults.

During the first year of life, there are dramatic changes in infants' ability to organize their own goal-directed actions. Woodward and her students have found that these developments are correlated with infants' responses to the actions of other people. Moreover, recent evidence shows that learning a new action impacts infants' understanding of others' actions. >from *Babies tune into others' intentions early in the first year. February 13, 2004

related context
empathy for pain activates pain-sensitive regions of the brain. we use emotional representations reflecting our own subjective feeling states to understand the feelings of others. february 19, 2004
> neurophysiology of sympathy: patterns of brain activity. december 10, 2002
> first look at the world: making sense of the unknown. babies use relationships between objects to build an understanding of the world. december 3, 2002
> context processing: mental operating system . january 4, 2002
> technology and evolution. understanding the mental processes of others -- mentalizing -- is the basis of our socialization and what makes us human. march 13, 2001

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