The Eyes Have It: Newborns prefer faces with a direct gaze

Newborn babies may not look particularly busy, but they’re already hard at work building social proficiency. Consider that, according to a new report, 2-to-5-day-old infants already home in on faces that fix them with a direct gaze and devote less attention to faces with eyes that look to one side.

LOOK AT ME. Faces with a direct gaze (left) drew longer looks from infants than those with an averted gaze (right) did. Farroni/PNAS

What’s more, in 4-month-olds, direct eye contact elicits enhanced brain activity associated with face perception, say psychologist Teresa Farroni of the University of London and her colleagues.

“The exceptionally early sensitivity to mutual gaze demonstrated in our studies is arguably the major foundation for the later development of social skills,” Farroni holds.

Her group reports its findings in an upcoming Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers first studied 7 male and 10 female newborns. Each baby sat on an experimenter’s lap, eyes level with the center of a screen. A series of pairs of female faces then appeared on the screen. In each pair, the same woman looked directly at the child in one image and averted her gaze to the right or left in the other. Video cameras monitored the babies’ eye movements.

On average, infants looked substantially longer at faces with direct gazes than at faces with eyes averted. Newborns also turned their heads more frequently toward faces that looked straight at them.

Farroni’s group then studied nine male and six female infants, all 4 to 5 months old. Each child sat on a parent’s lap in front of a screen as the computer presented in random order individual female faces with a direct or averted gaze. Babies typically viewed between 40 and 150 faces, depending on how tired or fussy they became. During this experiment, infants wore a cap holding 62 electrodes that measured brain-wave activity.

Compared with averted gazes, direct eye contact yielded higher peaks of a specific electrical response that had previously been linked to face perception in both 6-month-olds and adults. In Farroni’s view, this finding indicates that, by 4 months of age, direct eye contact facilitates brain activity necessary for discerning faces.

Newborns’ preference for direct eye contact stems from an innate capacity for recognizing a simple facial configuration of two eyelike “blobs” situated above a mouth-like “blob,” Farroni theorizes. For instance, an earlier study found that 6-month-olds look much longer at an oval shape containing two dark circles above a single circle than at an oval displaying the reverse arrangement.

A direct gaze, with a centered iris and pupil, represents a basic facial arrangement better than a gaze with the eyes off center does, Farroni asserts.

However, the nature of infants’ face recognition is controversial (SN: 5/18/02, p. 307: Baby Facial: Infants monkey with face recognition). Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen of the University of Cambridge in England suspects that an innate brain mechanism detects the presence of eyes instead of seeking a basic facial layout. He has found that as early as a few hours after birth, babies look longer at faces with eyes open than at faces with eyes closed.

This line of research coincides with evidence that babies, by 4 months, engage in precisely timed vocal interactions with caregivers (SN: 6/23/01, p. 390: Babies may thrive on wordless conversation).

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.