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

Research reveals atomic-level changes in ALS-linked protein

January 18, 2018
For the first time, researchers have described atom-by-atom changes in a family of proteins linked to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a group of brain disorders known as frontotemporal dementia and degenerative diseases ...

Fragile X finding shows normal neurons that interact poorly

January 18, 2018
Neurons in mice afflicted with the genetic defect that causes Fragile X syndrome (FXS) appear similar to those in healthy mice, but these neurons fail to interact normally, resulting in the long-known cognitive impairments, ...

How your brain remembers what you had for dinner last night

January 17, 2018
Confirming earlier computational models, researchers at University of California San Diego and UC San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues in Arizona and Louisiana, report that episodic memories are encoded in the hippocampus ...

Recording a thought's fleeting trip through the brain

January 17, 2018
University of California, Berkeley neuroscientists have tracked the progress of a thought through the brain, showing clearly how the prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain coordinates activity to help us act in response ...

Midbrain 'start neurons' control whether we walk or run

January 17, 2018
Locomotion comprises the most fundamental movements we perform. It is a complex sequence from initiating the first step, to stopping when we reach our goal. At the same time, locomotion is executed at different speeds to ...

A 'touching sight': How babies' brains process touch builds foundations for learning

January 16, 2018
Touch is the first of the five senses to develop, yet scientists know far less about the baby's brain response to touch than to, say, the sight of mom's face, or the sound of her voice.

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.