Babies make the link between vocal and facial emotion

April 11, 2018, University of Geneva
Durations of all ocular fixations of a baby after listening to a voice expressing happiness. The size of the blue areas represents the duration of the ocular fixations and the lines represent the ocular saccades. Credit: UNIGE

The ability of babies to differentiate emotional expressions appears to develop during their first six months. But do they really recognise emotion or do they only distinguish the physical characteristics of faces and voices? Researchers from the University of Geneva (UNIGE), Switzerland, have just provided an initial answer to this question, measuring the ability of six-month-old babies to make a connection between a voice (expressing happiness or anger) and the emotional expression on a face (again, of happiness or anger). The findings, published in the journal PLOS ONE, show that babies look at an angry face - especially the mouth—for longer if they have previously heard a happy a voice. This reaction to something new demonstrates for the first time that babies have an early ability to transfer emotional information from the auditory mode to the visual.

Emotions form part of our lives from a young age. Expressing emotions is the first tool available to babies for communicating with those around them. Babies express their emotions through their posture, voice and facial expressions from birth. These attitudes help their carers adapt their behaviour to the baby's emotional state. A baby's tears, for example, may be an of his or her distress and primary needs (to be fed or changed or to lie down). But is the opposite also true, asked UNIGE researchers, led by Professor Edouard Gentaz, president of the Psychology section of the UNIGE's Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences and a member of CISA? Are babies capable of identifying the emotions expressed by adults? Do they adapt their behaviour to fit in with the emotions they are exposed to?

Early skills for discriminating emotions

The ability of babies to differentiate seems to develop in the first six months of life. During this period, new-borns and babies have a preference for smiling faces and happy voices. Prior to six months, they can distinguish from other expressions such as fear, sadness or . From seven months onwards, they develop the ability to discriminate between several other . It seems, therefore, that babies possess early skills for differentiating between emotions... but do they really recognise them or only distinguish the of faces or voices?

In an attempt to find an answer, 24 six-month-old babies took part in a study at the Geneva BabyLab. They were exposed to voices and faces expressing the emotions of happiness and anger. During a first phase devoted to auditory familiarisation, the babies faced a black screen and listened to a neutral, happy or angry voice for 20 seconds. In the second stage - based on visual discrimination lasting 10 seconds—the babies were placed in front of two emotional faces, one expressing happiness and the other anger.

The research team used eye-tracking technology to measure the baby's eye movements with great precision. They were then able to determine whether the time spent looking at one or other of the emotional faces - or specific areas of the face (the mouth or eyes) - varied according to the voice they listened to. If the babies looked equally at both faces, it would not be possible to conclude that there was a difference. "On the other hand, if they clearly looked at one of them much longer, we could state that they are able to spot a difference between the two faces," explains Amaya Palama, a researcher at the Laboratory of Sensorimotor, Affective and Social Development in UNIGE's Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences.

Babies prefer what is new and surprising

The results of the study revealed that six-month-olds did not have a preference for either of the emotional faces if they had already heard a neutral voice or a voice expressing anger. On the other hand, they spent longer looking at the face expressing anger—especially its mouth—after hearing a expressing happiness. This visual preference for novelty on the part of six-month-olds testifies of their early ability to transfer information about happiness from the auditory to the visual mode.

Based on this study, we can conclude that six-month-old are able to recognise the emotion of happiness regardless of these auditory or visual physical characteristics.

Explore further: Do blind people express their emotions in the same way as people who can see?

More information: PLOS ONE (2018). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0194579

Related Stories

Do blind people express their emotions in the same way as people who can see?

July 5, 2017
Facial expressions play a powerful role in social interactions from birth to adulthood. Fear, joy, anger—all our emotions are articulated and understood thanks to universal codes. Common sense sees this enterprise as an ...

We can read each other's emotions from surprisingly tiny changes in facial color, study finds

March 19, 2018
Our faces broadcast our feelings in living color—even when we don't move a muscle.

Voices and emotions: the forehead is the key

December 13, 2017
Gestures and facial expressions betray our emotional state but what about our voices? How does simple intonation allow us to decode emotions – on the telephone, for example? By observing neuronal activity in the brain, ...

Is the human brain capable of identifying a fake smile?

October 7, 2013
Human beings follows others' state of mind From their facial expressions. "Fear, anger, sadness, and surprise are quickly displeasure inferred in this way," David Beltran Guerrero, researcher at the University of La Laguna, ...

Babies know when you're faking

October 16, 2013
If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands! That's easy enough for children to figure out because the emotion matches the movement. But when feelings and reactions don't align, can kids tell there's something wrong? ...

Babies remember nothing but a good time, study says

November 24, 2014
Parents who spend their time playing with and talking to their five-month-old baby may wonder whether their child remembers any of it a day later.

Recommended for you

Research reveals stronger people have healthier brains

April 19, 2018
A study of nearly half a million people has revealed that muscular strength, measured by handgrip, is an indication of how healthy our brains are.

Overcoming bias about music takes work

April 18, 2018
Expectations and biases play a large role in our experiences. This has been demonstrated in studies involving art, wine and even soda. In 2007, Joshua Bell, an internationally acclaimed musician, illustrated the role context ...

Study suggests we can recognize speakers only from how faces move when talking

April 18, 2018
Results of a new study by cognitive psychologist and speech scientist Alexandra Jesse and her linguistics undergraduate student Michael Bartoli at the University of Massachusetts Amherst should help to settle a long-standing ...

Scientists disconfirm belief that humans' physiological reaction to emotions are uniform

April 18, 2018
How do you feel when you're angry? Tense? Jittery? Exhausted? Is it the same every time? Is it identical to how your best friend, co-worker, or barista feel when they experience anger? In all likelihood the answer is no, ...

How mental health diagnosis should be more collaborative

April 18, 2018
Mental health diagnosis should be a collaborative and useful process, not a meaningless label - according to new research from Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust (NSFT) and the University of East Anglia.

Does pot really dull a teen's brain?

April 18, 2018
Pot-smoking teens may not be dooming themselves to a destiny of dim-wittedness, a new review suggests.

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.