Prenatal Facial Recognition

We already know that faces are incredibly central to human interaction, but facial recognition may also be fundamental to our brain’s development.

Science has long demonstrated that even newborn infants have a strong preference for human faces over other stimuli. Now, a new study from the University of California, Los Angeles, may have found that our preference for faces begins even before birth itself!

These researchers exposed fetuses to triangles of red dots which sought to mimic facial structures, by representing the triangle that two eyes and a mouth create in a real face. In fact, past research has shown that such triangles serve as similar stimuli to faces for newborn children.

After projecting these dots into the fetus’ peripheral vision, researchers slowly moved them away from the fetus’ line of sight. Amazingly, ultrasound pictures show that a significant number of fetus’ moved their heads to follow the dots. While this was still a minority of total exposures, when contrasted with nonfacelike triangles, the fetuses reacted almost three times as often.

While some critics have said that it is too early to conclude any level of actual facial recognition, the very method of projecting images into the womb has yielded praise. Scott Johnson, a developmental psychologist uninvolved in the study, said the method “opens up all kinds of new doors to understand human development,” adding that it was “very, very exciting.”

While it may be premature to conclude a preference for faces at this stage in development, such a conclusion would be consistent with previous research that has found a consistent preference for human faces amongst newborn babies, within minutes of birth.

For example, a 1974 study showed newborns images of faces after only nine minutes. They found that the newborns would follow these faces as they moved for longer than they would for similar images of unintelligible images.

Subsequent research found that, within hours, babies would be able to differentiate their mother’s face from strangers, showing a preference for their mother. What is most striking about this is the speed at which young humans learn how to recognize and differentiate faces.

Similar research has even found that newborns, after only a day, show increased preference towards “beautiful faces.” These researchers contended that such faces better represent the stereotypical or “prototypical” human face, helping to explain these surprising results.

If facial recognition is really this deeply ingrained in our brain’s development, it would help explain the notion of universal emotions that span cultures. Followers of this blog will be familiar with the notion of universal basic emotions, and of the idea that these have an evolutionary origin.

For more information on this, check out our relevant blogs here and here!

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