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Baby brains learn to 'tune in' faces, Science authors say

Searching for a friend's face in a sports arena packed with spectators can be difficult, but not impossible. But what if all the seats were filled with macaque monkeys--could you still find that one-in-a-thousand face? A six-month-old baby might fare better at this task than an adult, according to a study in the 17 May 2002 Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Three scientists set out to determine whether face recognition abilities follow a similar fate as ones ability to learn new languageswhich gets worse with age. According to University of Sheffields Olivier Pascalis and colleagues, people tune their brains to the faces they see the most within the first year of life, hard-wiring a template against which to compare new visages. They discovered that six-month old infants easily distinguish between individual humans and individual monkeys. Babies older by only three months and adults have an easy time telling apart fellow humans, but telling apart one monkey from another proved nearly impossible.

There are these really remarkable changes in the first year of life in the face processing system, said Michelle de Haan, a co-author at Institute of Child Health, University College London. Face recognition is one example of the way we study how the brain is divided up to different areas that serve different functions. We usually think about development as a process of gaining skills, so what is surprising about this case is that babies seem to be losing ability with age. This is probably a reflection of the brain's "tuning in" to the perceptual differences that are most important for telling human faces apart, and losing the ability to detect those differences that are not so useful.

This evidence for perceptual narrowing, as also displayed when we lose abilities to differentiate between non-native sounds, such as those from foreign languagesand not because of memory deteriorationmay represent a mo
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16-May-2002


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