Human beings are hard-wired for certain social skills, says Teresa Farroni, lead author of a new study on the babies appearing in today's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Farroni says experts in the field have long known that when older infants exchange eye contact with, for example, their caretakers, they will follow the direction of their companions' gaze should they glance away.
This study, she says, is the first to examine newborns' preference for eyes that look right at them. The tender age of the babies in the sample group further implies that this particular social skill is inborn, says Farroni, a postdoctoral research fellow who divides her time between Britain's University of London and Italy's University of Padua.
"The results show that, from the beginning, newborns are able to discriminate something that's important to them: to be seen. So, in some way we are born prepared for social communication," Farroni says. An early sensitivity to social signals is crucial to later social development, she adds.
In the first of two experiments, Farroni and her colleagues at the University of Padua's Pediatric Clinic tested 17 newborns between two and five days old. One experimenter held the babies in front of a screen as a red flickering light caught their attention. Two pictures of the same face were then shown -- one on either side of the monitor's center. In one image, the eyes were fixed on the baby, while in the other they were averted.
In repeated showings of the same face pairs, the only variable was whether the direct or averted gaze popped up on the left or right side of the screen. The photos appeared in a random order, and remained on the screen for as long as the babies stared at one of them.
The researchers videotaped the babies' eye movements and analyzed the recordings: All the infants looked more often at the face looking at them, and all but two looked at it longer.
For the second experiment, 15 babies, each 4 months old, sat in their mothers' laps while the researchers showed them the same set of photographs. The babies wore plastic head nets fitted with sensors that picked up their brain signals.
"We wanted to know if there is a bigger activation in the brain when a face is looking at you and, if so, when does it start," Farroni explains. "Four months is the youngest age that we can use this technique."
The investigators focused on a component of brain activity, referred to as N170, known to be sensitive to face stimuli in adults. When the babies looked at faces that made eye contact, they showed a stronger "infant N170" than when they looked at faces with averted gaze.
"This means that there is a deeper analysis of the face [by babies] when there is a straight gaze," Farroni says. "It's like a baby is saying, 'When I can't move and I need to be protected, I prefer to look at a face that is looking at me.'"
Lillian Blackmon, a Maryland neonatologist and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on fetus and newborn, says Farroni's technique of measuring eye contact in newborns may help scientists gather information about infants who are neurologically abnormal.
"This would be of great interest, for instance, when looking at babies who've been drug-exposed -- particularly to cocaine, where observationally it's been picked up that they do not relate very well to their caretakers," Blackmon says.
She also speculates this method might function as an early detector of disorders such as autism, where children don't fix on faces.
What To Do
For more on child development, try Tufts University or the Association for Treatment and Training in the Attachment of Children .