There is an idea that EB Bolles argued for in his blog, Babel’s Dawn (here), and his book by the same name. It is that words are in effect pointers than force the listener’s attention to a topic or element of a topic. So if I say ‘flag’ and there is a flag near by, your attention will shift to that flag, and, if there is no flag in sight, your attention with shift to the concept of flag in your mind. The shift would be automatic. Words steer attention and force it to find what matches the word; the meaning of a word is the collection of concepts that it can force into attention. This idea depends on whether attention can be steered and the usual example used the illustrate the effect is the way we follow a pointing finger or another person’ gaze.
A recent paper (see citation) confirms that both gaze and arrows can steer attention. Here is what they did:
…we aimed at testing a strong definition of resistance to suppression for orienting of attention elicited by these two cues. In five experiments, participants were informed with 100% certainty about the future location of a target they had to react to by presentation of either a direction word at the beginning of each trial or instructions at the beginning of each block. Gaze and arrows were presented before the target as uninformative distractors irrelevant for the task. The results showed similar patterns for gaze and arrows—namely, an interference effect when the distractors were incongruent with the upcoming target location. This suggests that the orienting of attention mediated by gaze and arrows can be considered as strongly automatic.
The finding that the information conveyed by distractors interfered with the task indicates that orienting of attention mediated by both gaze and arrows resists suppression and can be defined as strongly automatic. Indeed, even though participants were informed with 100% certainty about the upcoming target location, and, thus, they were motivated to voluntarily attend to that location, results showed that they could not ignore the information conveyed by the distractors.
The authors do not seem to view the arrow as a stand-in for pointing and therefore likely to be a similar cue to gaze – one that we are innately supplied with. My opinion is that it is likely to be closely related to pointing. Humans and some animals do follow pointing at an early age.
However, it is important to point out that the similar behavioural effect obtained for gaze and arrows—namely, the elicitation of an automatic attention shift—does not necessarily imply that the underlying processes are the same for these two cue types. Indeed, arrows are able to elicit an automatic attention shift probably because they are a well-learned symbol, which conveys a strong spatial information that is reinforced every day, for instance by means of road signs. On the contrary, gaze is likely to trigger an automatic attention orienting because it may represent a special cue characterized by a strong biological significance given its relevance in everyday life, and, for such reasons, humans would have developed a reflexive attention shift in response to the view of an averted gaze that would also be supported by a dedicated neural circuit. Moreover, the presence of gaze-mediated orienting of attention in both new-borns as young as 2 days old and several species of nonhuman primates suggests that this phenomenon can be defined as innate, thus reinforcing the special nature of gaze as compared to other cue types.
It is not easy to see how communication is possible unless there is some sort of ‘steering attention to x’ mechanism so that one brain could influence the events in another brain. That is after all what communication is. Studying the control of attention is important to many aspects of neuroscience (preception, consciousness, communication at least).
Galfano G., Dalmaso M., Marzoli D., Pavan G., Coricelli C., & Castelli L. (2012). Eye gaze cannot be ignored (but neither can arrows) The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology