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    Eye contact detection in humans from birth

    Farroni, T. and Csibra, Gergely and Simion, G. and Johnson, M.H. (2002) Eye contact detection in humans from birth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 99 (14), pp. 9602-9605. ISSN 0027-8424.

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    Making eye contact is the most powerful mode of establishing a communicative link between humans. During their first year of life, infants learn rapidly that the looking behaviors of others conveys significant information. Two experiments were carried out to demonstrate special sensitivity to direct eye contact from birth. The first experiment tested the ability of 2- to 5-day-old newborns to discriminate between direct and averted gaze. In the second experiment, we measured 4-month-old infants' brain electric activity to assess neural processing of faces when accompanied by direct (as opposed to averted) eye gaze. The results show that, from birth, human infants prefer to look at faces that engage them in mutual gaze and that, from an early age, healthy babies show enhanced neural processing of direct gaze. The exceptionally early sensitivity to mutual gaze demonstrated in these studies is arguably the major foundation for the later development of social skills. The perception of faces, and the understanding that faces can reflect internal states of social partners, are vital skills for the typical development of humans. Of particular importance is processing information about eyes and eye-gaze direction. Although the perception of averted gaze can elicit an automatic shift of attention in the same direction (1), allowing the establishment of “joint attention” (2), mutual gaze (eye contact) provides the main mode of establishing a communicative context between humans (3–5). A number of lines of evidence suggest that specific neural mechanisms are engaged when human adults (6) or other primates (7) detect the direction of gaze in another's face. In addition, it is known that, from at least 4 months of age, human infants will shift their spatial attention toward the direction of a gaze shift when viewing a face (8, 9), and it is commonly agreed that such skills are vital for subsequent social development (10). However, considerable controversy remains with regard to whether the perception of eye gaze is a perceptual skill acquired through experience (11), or caused by innate mechanisms. This controversy is also relevant to the proposal that deficits in eye-gaze perception may be symptomatic of, or even contribute to, autism (12). Individuals with autism have difficulties with many forms of social communication, and their gaze processing is impaired at various levels, such as eye contact, gaze following, joint attention, and understanding gaze within a mentalistic framework (13–15). It has been shown that human newborns have a visual preference for face-like stimuli (16), prefer faces with eyes opened (17), and tend to imitate certain facial gestures (18). Preferential attention to perceived faces with direct gaze would provide the most compelling evidence to date that human newborns are born prepared to detect socially relevant information. This was investigated in experiment 1. In experiment 2, we attempt to gain converging evidence for the differential processing of direct gaze in infants by recording event-related potentials (ERPs) from the scalp as infants view faces.


    Item Type: Article
    School: School of Science > Psychological Sciences
    Depositing User: Sarah Hall
    Date Deposited: 15 Oct 2019 15:37
    Last Modified: 15 Oct 2019 15:37


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