Study: Infants process faces long before they recognize other objects

December 11, 2012 by Max Mcclure, Stanford University Medical Center
Using a net of electroencephalographic sensors, the researchers noninvasively measured the electrical activity of participants' brains. Credit: Stanford Vision and NeuroDevelopment Lab

(Medical Xpress)—Using brain-monitoring technology, Stanford psychology researchers have discovered that infant brains respond to faces in much the same way as adult brains do, even while the rest of their visual system lags behind.

Any mother will tell you that love staring at . It isn't just parental wishful thinking, either; studies show that babies, even those less than an hour old, tend to stare at face-like images longer than at any other pattern.

But this preference is a little surprising – newborns' visual systems aren't yet fully developed, and infants often have trouble distinguishing between basic shapes. How can they zero in on something as complex as a face?

New research from Professor Anthony Norcia and postdoctoral fellow Faraz Farzin, both of the Stanford Vision and NeuroDevelopment Lab, suggests a physical basis for infants' ogling. At as early as four months, babies' brains already process faces at nearly adult levels, even while other images are still being analyzed in lower levels of the visual system.

The results fit, Farzin pointed out, with the prominent role human faces play in a baby's world.

"If anything's going to develop earlier it's going to be face recognition," she said.

The paper appeared in the online Journal of Vision.

The researchers noninvasively measured generated in the infants' brains with a net of sensors placed over the scalp – a sort of electroencephalographic skullcap.

The sensors were monitoring what are called steady state visual potentials – spikes in brain activity elicited by . By flashing photographs at infants and adults and measuring their at the same steady rhythm – a technique Norcia has pioneered for over three decades – the researchers were able to "ask" the participants' brains what they perceived.

When the experiment is conducted on adults, faces and objects (like a telephone or an apple) light up similar areas of the temporal lobe – a region of the brain devoted to higher-level visual processing.

Infants' neural responses to faces were similar to those of adults, showing activity over a part of the temporal lobe researchers think is devoted to face processing.

Infants were "not yet face experts like adults," Farzin said, "but well on their way."

Objects, on the other hand, lit up a lower-level area of the visual system – a part of the occipital lobe devoted to processing more basic visual features such as contrast or orientation.

The researchers can't yet say, however, whether this early jump on is intrinsic or the result of infants encountering faces over and over again in their daily life.

The context in which babies encounter faces is very different than it is for objects, Norcia pointed out. "When you see a face, you're looking at your mom, you're interacting," he said. "It's associated with a reward."

The findings may also have significance for a class of neurological and neurodevelopmental conditions that cause lifelong struggles with facial recognition. The difficulties are associated with restricted oxygen flow or trauma to the brain shortly after birth or atypical early development of the face-specific brain region.

Explore further: New study examines brain processes behind facial recognition

Related Stories

New study examines brain processes behind facial recognition

April 18, 2011
When you think you see a face in the clouds or in the moon, you may wonder why it never seems to be upside down.

Speed limit on babies' vision

July 14, 2011
Babies have far less ability to recognize rapidly changing images than adults, according to research from the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain. The results show that while infants can perceive flicker or movement, they ...

Infants show greater unease towards computer-morphed faces when shown 'half-mother' images

October 12, 2012
When interacting with robots or animations with unnatural-looking faces, many people report a sense of unease. The face seems familiar yet alien, leaving the brain uncertain whether it is definitely human. To make robots ...

Brain mapping shows auto experts recognize cars like people recognize faces

October 1, 2012
When people – and monkeys – look at faces, a special part of their brain that is about the size of a blueberry "lights up." Now, the most detailed brain-mapping study of the area yet conducted has confirmed that it isn't ...

Recommended for you

Mechanisms of harmful overhydration and brain swelling

May 22, 2018
We are all familiar with the drawbacks of dehydration, but we rarely hear about the harmful effects of overhydration. For one, excess fluid accumulation can lead to dangerously low sodium levels in the blood or hyponatremia—a ...

Mice brain structure linked with sex-based differences in anxiety behavior

May 22, 2018
Using male individuals has long been a tradition in scientific mice studies. But new research enforces the importance of using a balanced population of male and female mice.

Cell types underlying schizophrenia identified

May 22, 2018
Scientists at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden and University of North Carolina have identified the cell types underlying schizophrenia in a new study published in Nature Genetics. The findings offer a roadmap for the development ...

In brain stimulation therapy less might be more

May 22, 2018
One of the promising non-invasive brain therapeutic methods is the repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS). During such a procedure, a magnetic coil is placed near the head of the patient and a magnetic pulse ...

Subtle hearing loss while young changes brain function, study finds

May 22, 2018
Cranking up your headphones or scrambling for a front-row spot at rock shows could be damaging more than your hearing.

What helps form long-term memory also drives the development of neurodegenerative disease

May 22, 2018
Scientists have just discovered that a small region of a cellular protein that helps long-term memories form also drives the neurodegeneration seen in Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). This small part of the Ataxin-2 protein ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.