Babies Remember Faces Despite Face Masks

Summary: 6- to 9-month-old infants can form memories of masks and recognize faces when the mask is removed.

Source: UC Davis

Babies learn by looking at human faces, and many parents and child experts worry about the potential developmental harm from widespread face coverings during the pandemic.

A new study by researchers at the University of California, Davis, has put those concerns to rest, finding that infants as young as 6 to 9 months can form memories of masks and recognize those faces when the masks are removed.

Michaela DeBolt, a doctoral candidate in cognitive psychology, and Lisa Oakes, a professor in the Department of Psychology and Center for Mind and Brain, used eye tracking to study how masks affect infants’ face recognition.

In the study, 58 infants, each sitting on a parent’s lap or in a high chair, were shown pairs of masked and unmasked female faces on a computer screen and cameras recorded where they looked. Because babies dwell longer on unfamiliar images, researchers can derive the faces they recognize, DeBolt said.

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The findings appear in a paper published in the January/February special issue of the journal was a babyThe focus was on the impact of COVID-19 on infant development.

The testing took place from late December 2021 to late March 2022 at Oakes’ Infant Cognition Lab at the Mind and Brain Center in Davis, California, during a statewide mask mandate and the arrival of the omicron strain of the coronavirus.

“When babies learn a mask, when they see the face again, they recognize it,” DeBault said.

However, when the order was reversed, infants strongly underrecognized the masks they first saw removed. Debault said it was similar to her own experience of not immediately recognizing a friend wearing a face mask.

This shows a woman wearing a face mask
“When babies learn a mask, when they see the face again, they recognize it,” DeBault said. The image is in the public domain

Learning faces is central to how babies learn to talk, perceive emotions, develop relationships with their caregivers and explore their environment, Oakes said. “So people were very concerned about facemasks and the effect it would have on how babies learn about human faces.”

Oakes, an expert on cognitive development in infancy, said the study highlighted babies’ remarkable ability to adapt. “I think it should be a relief to parents in general,” she said. “Babies all over the world are growing and growing.

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“There’s a lot of variation in babies’ everyday life experiences,” she added. “As long as they are well cared for and nurtured, as long as they get love and attention, they thrive. We can get into a mode where we think the way we do things is the best way to do things and anything different will be a problem. It clearly isn’t. “

About this neurodevelopmental research news

Author: Kathleen Holder
Source: UC Davis
Contact: Kathleen Holder – UC Davis
image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Closed access.
“Effects of Face Masks on Infant Face Learning: An Eye Observation Study” by Michaela C. DeBolt et al. was a baby

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Effects of face masks on infants’ face learning: An eye-tracking study

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This pre-registration study examined how face masks affected face memory in a North American sample of 6- to 9-month-old infants (N = 58) born during the COVID-19 pandemic. Infants’ memory was tested using a standard visual paired comparison (VPC) task.

We crossed whether or not the faces were masked during familiarization and test, with four trial types (masked-familiarization/masked-test, masked-familiarization/masked-test, masked-familiarization/masked-test, and incongruent- familiarization/unmasked- test).

Infants show memory for faces if faces are uncovered at test, regardless of whether or not the face was covered during familiarization. However, regardless of the familiarity condition, infants did not show strong evidence of memory when the test faces were masked.

In addition, infants’ tendency to look at the upper body (eye) region was greater for unmasked than for unmasked faces, although this difference was unrelated to memory performance.

In summary, although the presence of masks appears to affect infants’ face processing and memory, they can form memories of masks and recognize those familiar faces even in the absence of masks.


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