BYU psychology professor changes theories on infant perception

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Dr. Ross Flom’s research on child development has changed the impact of infant studies.  After years of researching how infants perceive facial details at certain ages, Flom has discovered that some theories are more fluid than concrete.

For his research, Flom showed pictures of primates to infants between 9 and 12 months to see how long it would take them to distinguish between the images. Previous research has shown that after 9 months, an infant’s ability to distinguish between people of other  races or animals of other species decreases greatly. What Dr. Flom found is by doubling the time 12-month-old infants are exposed to images compared to 9-month-old infants, the older children are still able to make distinctions, but it takes them longer.

“He broke the stereotypes in terms of the protocol, how long you’re supposed to expose the child and then test them, and then wound up demonstrating you can get this effect to show up again, that children can actually discriminate between unfamiliar faces,” said Chris Porter,  assistant professor in the School of Family Life.

[media-credit name=”Mark A. Philbrick/BYU” align=”alignright” width=”250″]Babies between 9-months and 12-months were tested to identify Barbary macaque monkeys.[/media-credit]
Babies between 9-months and 12-months-old were tested to identify Barbary macaque monkeys.
In order to have the least amount of error in the study, the infants were shown images they have limited exposure to. Infants see humans all the time, so Barbary macaque monkeys were chosen with the impression that the infants have had limited exposure to them.

“At birth your face perception starts off fairly broad and over time it becomes honed into faces with which you’ve been exposed to, or so we thought,” Flom said. “What we showed is it doesn’t quite restrict as much as we thought, that actually it can still remain fairly broad.”

The concept of perceptual narrowing goes beyond the visual aspect into speech recognition. While culture and environment play a role in how a child perceives the world, this research suggests that a child may be able to differentiate between images and sounds even beyond a certain age.

“Some research suggests that children begin to narrow in terms of what they can hear, in terms of sound systems and what this might suggest is that maybe it doesn’t narrow quite as much and maybe children are still open and sensitive to those environmental affects or environmental cues that aren’t familiar to them,” said Porter.

Joseph Fair, a doctorate student studying clinical neuropsychology, worked as a graduate student with Flom on this research as well. What he gleaned from this experience extends beyond promoting his doctoral degree and into his personal life.

“I have three small kids and it has been a couple years now, but being able to look at them and say, ‘OK this is the stage when they’re optimized to do this process and just knowing, at least theoretically, what might be going on in their brain at different stages of their life is fascinating ….”

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