Study: Infants process faces long before they recognize other objects

December 11, 2012 by Max Mcclure
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 redefines proteins' role in the development of spinal sensory cells

September 19, 2017
A recent study led by Samantha Butler at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA has overturned a common belief about how a certain class of proteins in the spinal cord regulate ...

The brain at work: Spotting half-hidden objects

September 19, 2017
How does a driver's brain realize that a stop sign is behind a bush when only a red edge is showing? Or how can a monkey suspect that the yellow sliver in the leaves is a round piece of fruit?

Team discovers how to train damaging inflammatory cells to promote repair after stroke

September 19, 2017
White blood cells called neutrophils are like soldiers in your body that form in the bone marrow and at the first sign of microbial attack, head for the site of injury just as fast as they can to neutralize invading bacteria ...

Epileptic seizures show long-distance effects

September 19, 2017
The area in which an epileptic seizure starts in the brain, may be small but it reaches other parts of the brain at distances of over ten centimeters. That distant activity, in turn, influences the epileptic core, according ...

Study uncovers markers for severe form of multiple sclerosis

September 18, 2017
Scientists have uncovered two closely related cytokines—molecules involved in cell communication and movement—that may explain why some people develop progressive multiple sclerosis (MS), the most severe form of the disease. ...

Genetically altered mice bear some hallmarks of human bipolar behavior

September 18, 2017
Johns Hopkins researchers report they have genetically engineered mice that display many of the behavioral hallmarks of human bipolar disorder, and that the abnormal behaviors the rodents show can be reversed using well-established ...

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.