Sunday, July 15, 2012


A recent issue of the American Psychological Association's publication, the APA Monitor, reported a news brief related to a recent publication in the May issue of Developmental Science, a psychology journal. The report indicated that by age 9 months, babies are better at recognizing faces and emotional expressions of people of their own rase. The research had been conducted by psychologists at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and involved placing EEG recording sensors on the infant's head to record brain activity as they viewed happy and sad people of their own and of unfamiliar races. There were 48 infants involved in the study. Age turned out to be an important factor. Five month old infants were able to distinguish faces from both races. However, nine month olds where able to tell two faces apart within their own race. They had more difficulty with distinguishing individual face differences from pictures of faces from races other than their own.

Most people are familiar with the image of professor Conrad Lorenz, a pioneer of developmental ethology and Nobel Prize winner, showed that ducklings follow their mothers around shortly after hatching. He recognized this to reflect a species recognition process he called imprinting. This led to the documentation of a sensitive period of time during early development in which important learning is established in many species. Since that time many have pointed to imprinting--like phenomena as a typical mechanism for species recognition and the later identification of appropriate mates. Certainly work in autism and other fields of human development have demonstrated particular sensitivities for important kinds of learning during early human development. Most researchers believe that the evidence points to a sensitive period for the acquisition of human language during early childhood. Acquisition of a second language  during adulthood appears to be more difficult, and perfecting a native accent from a language learned later in life proves most often to be extremely difficult. This has led to many kinds of early intervention projects, and to early immersion language learning experiences being offered at fairly early agents.

So, now we learn that human babies learn to discriminate fine-grained differences in human faces before their first year of life is over. This would lead one to speculate that this quasi-imprinting phenomenon might have something to do with later kin recognition, ideals of beauty, mate selection, and even evolutionary adaptations such as selection and pressure for skin color in humans. The obvious implication is that it forms one aspect of what will later be called racial discrimination.

Certainly racial discrimination, both overt and nonconscious, leads to all sorts of social difficulty in inclusive modern societies. It is also clear that making fine discriminations among one's own tribe or clan would be important in facilitating social organization and communication in the long prehistoric evolution and adaptation of our species. However, a sense of group identity can lead people to make unfortunate choices in modern society where we all hope that merit will determine advancement as opposed to mere perceptual familiarity.

If the foregoing it is true, it does appear that other aspects of modern life might be at work in undermining some of this nonconscious  influence of early learning on the later social choices. In Western societies, not only are infants exposed routinely to a much greater variety of facial and physical variation in human form and color, but this diversity is now brought directly into the home via television and other forms of electronic and information technology. Of course, babies do tend to be nearsighted and best able to see the faces of those who hold them, feed them, and nurture them. Perhaps new mothers with smart phones and tablet computers should regularly share media with babies with the aim of exposure to new faces in entertainment and during communication with other smart-device using friends and associates.

As world population and human mobility grow and we find ourselves more and more leaving rural settings for our ever growing cities, anything we can do to emphasize the positive aspects of diversity and cooperation will be of benefit to everyone. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but familiarity, it seems, trains the eye.

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