Babies’ preference for other human faces begins before they have even left the womb, according to new research.
The study revealed for the first time that it isn’t just newborns that have a preference for face-like shapes, opening up the possibility that foetuses have many of the other capabilities of newborn children.
The team from Lancaster University were able to do the groundbreaking work as a result of developments in 4D ultrasound technology and the modelling of light penetration through human tissue.
Using a light source to project a pattern of three dots (in the shape of eyes and a mouth) through the uterine wall, they found that even at 34 weeks the foetus will turn to acknowledge the shape.
The same was not recorded when the light dots were assembled in a triangle shape, proving that it isn’t the light, but the shape that they were responsive to.
Professor Vincent Reid said he was surprised by the findings, he said: “There was the possibility that the foetus would find any shape interesting due to the novelty of the stimulus. If this was the case, we would get no difference in how they responded to the upright and upside down versions of the stimuli.
“But it turned out that they responded in a way that was very similar to infants.”
They concluded that this shows experience of faces after birth are not necessary for newborn babies to show a clear preference for gazing at other people’s faces.
Reid said: “This rules out the idea of filial imprinting, in the way that ducklings imprint on their mother, because we have shown that the preference for face like shapes is already present before birth.”
Although he also warned parents not to test it at home by shining bright lights into the face of your child, saying: “We were very careful and made sure that the light was bright enough to enter the womb but not too bright as to be unpleasant or aversive for the fetus.”
The findings have opened a whole new field of research that asks if foetus in the third trimester could also have the same abilities as newborns to discriminate numbers and quantities.