Dissociating associative and motor aspects of action understanding: Processing of dual-ended tools by 16-month-old infants

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When learning about the functions of novel tools, it is possible that infants may use associative and motoric processes. This study investigated the ability of 16-month-olds to associate the orientation in which an actor held a dual-function tool with the actor's prior demonstrated interest in one of two target objects, and their use of the tool on that target. The actors’ hand posture did not differ between conditions. The infants were shown stimuli in which two actors acted upon novel objects with a novel tool, each actor employing a different function of the tool. Using an eye-tracker, infants’ looking time at images depicting the actors holding the tool in an orientation congruent or incongruent with the actor's goal was measured. Infants preferred to look at the specific part of the tool that was incongruent with the actor's goal. Results show that the association formed involves the specific part of the tool, the actor, and the object the actor acted upon, but not the orientation of the tool. The capacity to form such associations is demonstrated in this study in the absence of motor information that would allow 16-month-olds to generate a specific representation of how the tool should be held for each action via mirroring processes.

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