Seeing the world through baby eyes

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Fig. 1: A study published in ’Current Biology’ involving the Univers
Fig. 1: A study published in ’Current Biology’ involving the University of Vienna compared the brain activities of babies and adults when looking at pictures to find out how babies perceive the world. (© Max Leveridge via Unsplash)

New study shows how babies order visual perceptual impressions

While adults sort visual impressions at lightning speed, babies have to learn this first. This ability is important for finding their way in everyday life. Until now, it was unclear whether visual perception in the brains of babies is fundamentally different from that of adults before language acquisition. Researchers at FU Berlin and developmental psychologist Stefanie Höhl from the University of Vienna have compared the brain activities of babies and adults when looking at pictures to find out how babies perceive the world. The study is currently published in the scientific journal "Current Biology".

Our visual system enables us to navigate through our everyday life on a daily basis and to distinguish, for example, a table from a chair in a flash. Earlier studies using eye movement measures already showed that babies become better and better at categorizing objects in the first year of life. A new study now provides information about the processes that take place in the brain during this process. The brain activity of babies between the ages of 6 and 8 months was recorded using electroencephalography while they looked at over a hundred pictures of people, toys and houses. For comparison, a group of adults viewed the same images. Modern analysis techniques were used to track down the similarities and differences in perception between babies and adults.

"We were able to observe that babies could already classify the various images into categories such as -faces- and -toys-, but they were much less precise and much slower than adults in doing so," explains Höhl. The slower transmission of information in the child’s brain could be related to the not yet fully developed connections between brain areas. The so-called myelin layer, which ensures accelerated transmission in the adult brain, is still forming after birth. This is matched by the fact that the brain rhythms involved in visual processing had significantly slower frequencies in babies than in adults. The comparison with computer models also showed that the perceptual processes in babies were predominantly characterized by basic properties of the images, e.g. brightness and edges. In contrast, more complex aspects, e.g., shapes, played a greater role in adults. At the same time, there were exciting correlations between the visual perception processes of the small and large test participants. These show that babies already perceive different types of objects in a very similar way to adults.

The study demonstrates the enormous potential of modern analytical methods in cognitive neuroscience and lays the foundation for further research in developmental psychology. "We have now learned a lot about perception in babies compared to adults, but of course an incredible amount happens in between," says Höhl. The research group is therefore currently conducting further studies with children of kindergarten and school age.

Publication in Current Biology:

Visual category representations in the infant brain. Siying Xie, Stefanie Hoehl, Merle Moeskops, Ezgi Kayhan, Christian Kliesch, Bert Turtleton, Moritz Köster, Radoslaw M. Cichy. In: Current Biology

DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2022.11.016