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Infants Recognize Faces Before Objects

Update Date: Dec 12, 2012 06:58 AM EST

In a new study, researchers with the help of brain-monitoring technology have found that the brains of infants respond to faces in a very similar way as adult brains do, even while the rest of their visual system lags behind.

Parents often feel that their child stares at their faces. While many may regard it as wishful thinking, studies do show that even babies, less than an hour old, tend to stare at face-like images longer than at any other pattern, Medical Xpress reported.

However, this preference remains unexplained as it is known that newborns develop their visual system only a little later and they also find it difficult to distinguish between basic shapes.

The current study by research professor Anthony Norcia and postdoctoral fellow Faraz Farzin, both of the Stanford Vision and NeuroDevelopment Lab, suggests that while babies are just four months old, their brains already start processing faces almost in the same way as adults do, while other images are still being analyzed by them in a lower level of the visual system.

According to Farzin, the reason for the same could be because of the prominent role that human faces play in a baby's world.

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

For the study, the researchers measured electrical activity generated in the infants' brains with the help of sensors placed over the scalp of the babies. The sensors measured spikes in brain activity elicited by visual stimulation.

Photographs of infants and adults were shown to the babies, while their brain activity was recorded.

The analysis of the brain activity in babies revealed that while the infants looked at the photographs of faces, their response was similar to those of adults, showing activity over a part of the temporal lobe researchers think is devoted to face processing.

Even though the infants were not "face experts like adults, but well on their way," Farzin said.

When the infants were shown pictures of objects, another part of their brain, a lower-level area of the visual system which processes more basic visual features such as contrast or orientation, lit up.

Researchers are unsure if this early jump on face recognition is inherent in babies or if it is due to the repetitive encounter with faces in their daily life.

"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 be significant for those with a condition that makes facial recognition difficult for people.

The paper appeared in the online Journal of Vision.

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