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!

Succeeding at Intercultural Communication

How important is language in communication really?

This may seem like a silly question, but in such a large and diverse world, the myriad of languages present particular challenges to jetsetters and tourists of all sorts. No matter how many languages you know, the intrepid world traveler can never be fluent in the language of every nation. What can we do to better communicate if we don’t speak the same language?

The good news is that, according to Humintell’s own Dr. David Matsumoto, language is not actually the most important factor in cross cultural communication. Instead, a few simple phrases, combined with a focus on positive nonverbal communication can go a long way towards promoting communication without fluency.

As Dr. Matsumoto says in an interview with Psychology Today: “If you are good at non-verbal communication then you can go anywhere without knowing the language and you will get along.”

He elaborates on the fact that language is really just one part of a given interaction. In every conversation, our body language, facial expression, and gestures convey a wealth of information concerning our intentions and emotions.

In fact, sometimes linguistic fluency, if divorced from nonverbal behavior, can lead to conflict and misunderstanding. “Verbal language by itself only communicates a certain amount of content,” Dr. Matsumoto explains, “People can be saying the content they want to communicate, but just not come across correctly.”

Many of us who learned foreign language in school focused on memorizing verb tables, practicing vocabulary, and translating written documents. However, that leaves out the important aspect of body language, which can vary between cultures. Instead, Dr. Matsumoto points out that “data shows that language classes that incorporate non-verbal communication and culture in their curricula fair better.”

So, we’ve established the importance of non-verbal communication, but exactly how should this be practiced?

Followers of this blog will be familiar with the seven basic emotions. There are certain emotional expressions that span cultural divides across the planet, such as happiness, anger, and disgust.

Dr. Matsumoto emphasizes only one of these: joy. This is the clearest emotion, as “all other emotions are prone to misunderstanding… but positivity is not usually misinterpreted.” Based on his advice, we should approach intercultural communication sporting a smile and making a pointed effort to learn about their culture.

Pairing this with even a rudimentary understanding of language can also help. Dr. Matsumoto recommends learning basic, positive phrases like “good morning,” or “thank you,” which “go a long way to greasing many interactions.”

Hopefully, Dr. Matsumoto’s advice can be helpful to you! For more tips on how to improve cross cultural communication, check out Humintell’s training packages here and here.

Deception as Human Nature Blog, Part II

By Humintell Director Dr. David Matsumoto

In this week’s blog, we continue last week’s discussion about deception as being a part of human nature.

The words “deception” and “lying” most often conjure up negative, and sometimes pretty dark images. This is reflected in not only much academic and lay writing on the topic, but also in everyday discourse. We teach our children not to lie, and in general the public believes that “lying is bad.” These negative connotations occur in research as well; with few exceptions, academics studying deception and lying have often associated them with malice, self-interest, criminal behavior, and sometimes even psychopathy and psychopathology.

But let me give a different spin on the topic. In fact, deception and lying are indeed part of human nature (as the title of this blog suggests), and not just the dark side of the mind. I believe that deception and lying are fundamental aspects of human (and animal) social life. Moreover, social life as it exists today would not exist without deception and lying. That is, social life as we know it requires a good degree of deception and lying.

From the time we are infants and children, we learn to hide our thoughts and feelings. Children are often instructed to tell Aunt Mary that they liked her gift when in fact they didn’t. Human brain maturation and development facilitates this cognitive and emotional control. One of the reasons why is because deception and lying, to some degree, grease the wheels of society and culture, allowing for interactions to occur smoothly, so that humans can be coordinated and cooperate on tasks to get things done.

One of the ways in which this occurs can be seen in the development of emotional regulation skills across the lifespan. From the time we are infants and children, we learn to regulate our emotions in order to get along with others better. As adults we don’t take swings at others whenever we’re angry, or just begin stripping our clothes off in extremely hot weather, even though we may have those impulses. We typically think of this kind of change as “development,” because people are increasingly able to hide their emotions in order to be socially appropriate. But in reality, this is a type of deception.

In fact, think about what would happen is we knew what everyone else was really thinking and feeling all the time. If this were the case, nothing in human societies and cultures as we know it would exist. Relationships among family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and even strangers require some degree of blindness to what we are all thinking and feeling. Family relationships would break down, and marriage would be difficult if not non-existent. Human social life is in fact built to some degree on a foundation of deception and lies. Human brains, cognitions, and cultures have all evolved to allow this to occur (along with many other capabilities).

Even our relatives in the animal kingdom rely on a great deal of deception for survival. Think about how chameleons change colors in their environment, or how difficult it is to see fish in water against their background. Have you ever seen a praying mantis out in the wild? These animals are very difficult to spot because they employ or have a natural deceptive ability. This ability helps them to survive (that is, not get eaten!).

Thus when we think about deception and lying, let’s not forget it’s truly a part of our human (and animal) nature, and for good reason. That’s why it’s tough to detect deception, and is one of the reasons why study after study has continually shown that human observers are usually no better than chance at judging whether a person is lying to them or not. If anyone says it’s easy, they may not have a good idea of the complexity of the issue, or how in-grained deception and lying are in our human nature.

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