Just minutes old, the baby finds his mother’s face and looks into her eyes – and looks, and looks and looks. Newborns’ instant ability to make steady, extended eye contact is their first, most powerful effort to communicate with other humans.
A group of researchers designed two experiments to demonstrate how skilled babies are at making eye contact. In the first, they tested the ability of newborns to detect someone else’s gaze. They showed paired photographs of faces to infants between 2 and 5 days old. In one photograph, the eyes were averted. In the other, the eyes looked directly forward. The researchers found that the babies looked longer at the faces in which the eyes were forward – those with which they could make eye contact.
The second experiment measured the brain response of 4-month-old infants to the same photographs, this time with a device called a Geodesic Sensor Net. The babies showed increased brain activity when looking at photographs of faces with a direct gaze. These results tell us that healthy babies’ brains engage when they look into someone’s eyes.
These first efforts to connect with another person are so important that when babies are disinterested in making eye contact, it is an early signal of being at risk for certain developmental disorders, including autism. Whether an underlying disorder exists or not, it is clear from this study and others that babies’ inborn drive to make eye contact must be met with lots of experience with face-to-face interactions. The lifelong ability to read even the most subtle facial expressions, and to respond appropriately, begins to develop in the first minutes of life.
The results of these studies show that human infants are born prepared to detect and respond to important social signals. Scientists say that this inborn ability enables newborns to establish powerful connections to their caretakers right from the start. This ensures that they will have the protection, security and care they require to survive, and it lays a foundation for social skills needed throughout life.
Source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 99 (2002): 9602–05.
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