Infants Recognize Emotions


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A recent article by Popular Science  reports on a new study from Psychology professor Ross Flom and colleagues that found babies are able to read each other’s emotional expressions as early as 5 months old.  The study which was published in Infancy journal comes right after similar research  published by Flom on infants’ ability to understand the moods of dogsmonkeys and classical music .

Flom explains that while babies are unable to communicate through language they do learn how to communicate through affect, or emotion.  This implies that not only can they read emotional expressions of their infant peers, but they can perceive and associate changes in those expressions as well.  Flom points out, “… it is not surprising that in early development, infants learn to discriminate changes in affect.”   This change in affect is where babies are able to “read” each other while most adults are left scratching their heads.

The study, held at Brigham Young University which was co-authored by Professor Lorraine Bahrick  and  graduate student Mariana Vaillant-Molina from Florida International University, looked at 40 babies ranging from 3.5 to 5 months old.

The study placed baby participants in front of two monitors.  One displayed a video of a happy baby and the other displayed a video of an unhappy baby.  While the babies were placed in front of the monitors, researchers played audio from a third baby.  The audio was either of a happy, laughing baby or of a sad, crying baby.

Researchers noticed that when the audio reflected happy baby noises the infants focused on the happy baby video and when the audio was sad they looked more to the sad video.

Past studies found that babies (not infants) are able to perceive facial expressions of emotion in familiar adults at 6 months and all other adults by 7 months.  However, this study takes it a step further documenting that infants as young as 5 months (but not as young as 3.5 months) have the capability to perceive and recognize emotional expressions in other infants

Flom substantiates, These findings add to our understanding of early infant development by reiterating the fact that babies are highly sensitive to and comprehend some level of emotion. Flom goes on to say, Babies learn more in their first 2 1/2 years of life than they do the rest of their lifespan, making it critical to examine how and what young infants learn and how this helps them learn other things.

Flom would like to take his recent findings a step further by testing whether infants younger than 5 months are able to demonstrate this same level of perception by watching and hearing clips of themselves.

What do you think? Will babies be able to read emotion even earlier if it’s their own?

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