In the Beginning Was Touch, or How Touch Enables the Social Communicative Capacities behind Joint Attention

Throughout the 20th century we find several examples where, once it has been established that a mental capacity is expressed through a specific mode, this link becomes so strong that anyone who doesn’t engage in this mode will be described as not possessing that mental capacity. For example, the link between oral speech and mental capacities became so strong during most of the 20th century that people who were born deaf during this period were forced to learn how to speak and lip read instead of sign language. It was only recently, when William Stokoe wrote his dissertation in 1960 demonstrating that American Sign Language (ASL) is a genuine language with syntax and grammar, that we stopped this practice.

A similar case can be found in children with visual impairments. In the past it was thought that children who were blind had severe social deficits, such as a lack of joint attention (JA), similar to those children in the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).The differences between these groups have been emphasized only recently when researchers and caregivers focused on different modes of interaction.For example, in children who are born blind, JA is developed when caregivers and children engage in doing things together in both joint and turn-taking patterns such as picking something together, shaking together, and passing an object back and forth. Children can demonstrate JA by taking the caregiver over to an object and putting his/her hand over it (see Perez-Pereira & Conti-Ramsden, 2013 for a review).

In the previous posts I argued that researchers of social cognition have privileged gaze as the mode of perception/interaction to study JA and how, just as in the examples above, this may have caused a neglect of the alternative ways in which social abilities, such as JA, can be performed by different human cultures and other species. In what continues I will describe how interaction through touch enables social capacities entailed by JA. This in turn will provide a more encompassing account of JA; an account of JA that will include ape and human infants who achieve milestones in alternative ways due to biological or cultural factors.

Providing a comprehensive definition of JA, to understand the mental capacities behind it, extends beyond the scope of this post. However, to be coherent with my previous argument, I will use the definition given by Tomasello and colleagues when attempting to identify what is unique in humans. Carpenter and Call (2013), in agreement with Tomasello (2014), argue that the motivation of “true” JA is “to share or align psychological states with others” (2013 p.12) with no ulterior motive, just for the sake of sharing attention. That is, Carpenter, Call, and Tomasello are emphasizing the social communicative capacities that are behind JA that allow a child to use gaze when engaging in JA.

All of the instances of touch across human cultures described in the previous posts are examples of interactions between caregiver and infant that serve as a form of social engagement/communication. This form of communication allows the infant to understand the world around him/her through the caregiver’s reactions to the world and the infant’s own response.

To understand how touch serves as communication consider how mother and infant chimpanzees communicate. In the wild, chimpanzee mothers touch their infants in different contexts such as grooming, tickling, or playing but most of the day is spent traveling, and during that time, the mother spends long periods in contact with the infant. When the infant is traveling ventrally, mother and infant become a tight bundle that travels through thick vines, going from one tree to the next without being separated (If you haven’t seen this mode of “transportation” please see this video from the JGI Institute). In this position, the infant is receiving important information about her mother’s reactions to the external world. If an aggression occurs in the group, the mother moves quickly away from the source of danger. Through touching his/her mother, the infant perceives an elevated heartbeat, rapid movements, piloerection and learns quickly that this is an aggressive-dangerous situation and learns to coordinate his/her own movements by grabbing his/her mother with a stronger grip so s/he does not fall off when his/her mother moves away quickly. This instance of learning about “the other’s reaction” in relation to the infant’s own reaction has clear survival benefits, since an infant that falls is likely to be injured in the aggressive encounter (for a more detailed discussion on how this kind of observation can be implemented see Botero, 2014).

The idea that caregivers communicate with infants through touch is not new. Hertenstein (2002) shows how through bodily changes such as skin temperature, respiratory patterns, perspiration and pulse, human caregivers can communicate differences in the emotional responses that a caregiver may be experiencing. He argues that the caregiver does not need to be mindful of this communication; for example, a mother may be changing an infant’s diaper thinking about her stressful day and not be aware she is communicating her anxious state to the infant.

I believe that this mode of interaction is the ontogenetic precursor of social communication. Through touch with his/her caregiver, ape and humans infants are able to experience their first form of communication; this experience allows the infant not only to start perceiving and understanding the world around him/her, but also enables any future form of communication. Consider the way human infants develop, even though there is no agreement on the exact age when JA develops, to my knowledge no author argues that JA as measured by gaze is present in newborns. Most authors will argue for the appearance of JA towards the mid-end of the first year of life. This delay in the appearance of JA (as measured by gaze) may not only be caused by the later development of cognitive capacities but also because newborn human babies cannot focus their eyes well and their visual acuity is limited (Slater, 2001). Meanwhile, consider the numerous newborn reflexes that are stimulated through touch: rooting, sucking, and the palmar grasp. The sensitivity of touch is developed from birth and the infant is able to use this mode of perception to interact with the world from the moment of birth.

Moreover, through touch, newborn babies know the boundaries or differences between other and self as exemplified by the rooting reflex (a reflex that helps a baby find the mother’s nipple). Babies display it only when hungry and touched by another person, not when they touch themselves (Rochat & Hespos, 1997). Thus, not only the baby is able to use touch from the moment s/he is born but also s/he can use touch to understand the difference between themselves and another person.

Babies can use this understanding to engage in their first communicative interactions. Kaye (1982) offers an example of one of the first ways in which this mode of communication can occur between the mother and the infant. He describes how newborn infants stop sucking, even when they are not full or the milk has not stopped flowing; all mothers respond by jiggling their infants after the infant has stopped sucking the mother’s breast (this is also applicable to bottle-fed babies). He argues that this is the first instance of turn-taking that functions as a “conversation”. This example illustrates how important touch is for any future social communication; through this basic sense, the infant understands that there is another person who will provide a response to his/her behavior. This response can be perceived through changes in movement, temperature, etc. Thus, through touch, the infant acquires the ability to understand him/herself as a causal agent and to understand the rudiments of communicative interaction.

I am arguing for the ontogenetic contribution of touch to social cognition in the infant’s development; touch is the mode of interaction that provides the infant a gateway to the world. I am not arguing that touch should be the only or the privileged mode of interaction through which the infant is able to understand the world and share an other’s perspective. I am arguing that touch seems to be an earlier mode of interaction than gaze and as such prepares the infant for future more complex developmental abilities.

In my next and final post I will argue for a second reason why touch is the precursor of social communication. That is, affiliative touch allows the infant to be calm enough to attend to the environment.


Botero, M. 2014: How primate mothers and infants communicate, characterizing interaction in mother-infant studies across species. In M. Pina & N. Gontier (Eds.), The Evolution of Social Communication in Primates: A Multidisciplinary Approach. Heidelberg, New York, Dordetch, London: Springer.

Hertenstein, M. 2002: Touch: its communicative functions in infancy. Human Development, 45, 70–94.

Kaye, K. 1982: The mental and social life of babies: how parents create persons. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Pérez-Pereira M. and Conti-Ramsden G. 2013: Language Development and Social Interaction in Blind Children. Hove, Sussex; Psychology Press Ltd.

Rochat, P. and Hespos, S. J. 1997: Differential rooting response by neonates: Evidence for an early sense of self. Early Development & Parenting, 6(3-4), 105-112.

Slater, A. 2001: Visual perception. In G. Bremner & A. Fogel, (eds.), Blackwell Handbook Of Infant Development: Handbooks of Developmental Psychology. Malden, MA: Blackwell.