At 6 months, babies use context to spot faces quickly

(Credit: Getty Images)

At just six months old, babies can already learn, remember, and use contextual cues in a scene to help them find faces and other objects of visual interest, a new study suggests.

“It was pretty surprising to find that six-month-olds were capable of this memory-guided attention,” says lead author Kristen Tummeltshammer, a postdoctoral scholar at Brown University. “We didn’t expect them to be so successful so young.”

In an experiment, babies showed steady improvement in finding faces in repeated scenes, but didn’t get any quicker or more accurate in finding faces in new scenes.

mom and baby participating in face recognition experiment
A little research volunteer gazes at the screen, ready to demonstrate some surprising new findings about how babies use context to direct their attention. (Credit: Kristen Tummeltshammer)

Senior author Dima Amso, an associate professor in cognitive, linguistic, and psychological sciences department, says the finding that infants can recognize and exploit patterns of context provides important new insights into typical and possibly atypical brain development.

“What that means is that they are efficient in using the structure in their environment to maximize attentional resources on the one hand and to reduce uncertainty and distraction on the other,” Amso says.

“A critical question in our lab has been whether infants at risk for neurodevelopmental disorders, especially autism spectrum disorders, have differences in the way that they process visual information, and whether this would impact future learning and attention. These data lay the developmental groundwork for asking whether there are differences in using previously learned visual information to guide future learning and attention across various neurodevelopmental populations.”

To make the findings, Tummeltshammer and Amso invited 46 healthy, full-term infants, either six or 10 months old, to their lab to play a little game of finding faces.

Seated on a parent’s lap, the babies simply had to watch a screen as researchers presented them with a series of arrangements of four colored shapes. In each arrangement, the shapes would turn around, with one revealing a face. An eye-tracking system would measure where the baby looked.

face recognition experiment
An example of an arrangement of colored shapes, turning to reveal faces and distractions. (Credit: Brown)

Eventually the babies would always look at the face, especially because after two seconds, the face would become animate and say words like “peekaboo.” In all, each baby saw 48 arrangements over eight minutes, with little breaks to watch clips of Elmo from Sesame Street. That, Tummeltshammer says, was to help keep them (and maybe their parents) engaged and happy.

The trick of the experiment is that while half the time the shape arrangements were randomly scrambled and the face could be behind any of the shapes, the other half of the time the experiment repeated the same arrangements, meaning a baby could learn from that context to predict where to look for the face. In this way, the babies beheld faces both in novel and repeated contexts.

Babies learn what we like by watching us closely

If babies could notice the repeated context pattern, remember it, and put it to use, they should be quicker and more accurate in finding the face when it came up in that kind of scene again.

By several measures reported in the study, the babies demonstrated that capacity clearly. For example, as they saw more scenes, babies consistently reduced the amount of time it took to find the face in repeated-context scenes, but not in new-context scenes. They also became better at ignoring non-face shapes in repeated-context scenes as they went along, but didn’t show that same improvement in new-context scenes.

Babies even learned to anticipate where the faces would be on the screen based on their experiences in the experiment.

Tummeltshammer says there was little difference between the six-month-olds and the 10-month-olds, suggesting that the babies have already developed the skill at the younger age.

In new research, Tummeltshammer says, she and Amso plan to experiment with more realistic scenes. After all, babies rarely need to look for faces among cleanly defined abstract shapes. A more real-world challenge for a baby, for instance, might be finding a parent’s familiar and comforting face across a holiday dinner table.

Babies of anxious moms focus more on threats

But even from this simpler experimental setting, the research clearly establishes the ability.

“We think of babies as being quite reactive in how they spread their attention,” Tummeltshammer says. “This helps us recognize that they are actually quite proactive. They are able to use recent memory and to extract what’s common in an environment as a shortcut to be able to locate things quickly.”

Researchers report their findings in the journal Developmental Science.

A James S. McDonnell Scholar Award and the National Institutes of Health funded the research.

Source: Brown University