Children can recognise faces… before they’re even born!?

Well, these days, a new mind-blowing scientific discovery is made just about every week.

This week, its about children. A research team in the UK has used advanced techniques to run the first psychological experiment on a fetus. No, you’re not drunk (ok, maybe you’re drunk), I actually typed “psychological experiment on a fetus”.

They did this by presenting lights as stimuli to children. When they’re arranged like a face, with two eyes on top and a nose underneath, the children looked more than when the lights appears like a triangle (with two on the bottom and one on top).

You can see the picture below (taken from the journal website Cell).

This sort of experiment (often called an eye-gaze experiment) is common in developmental psychology (and even used by one of my colleagues at Oxford to understand how children’s movements can lead to preferential treatment of things that move in sync with themselves).

The repercussions of this are vast, and of course some will bring up the role of when life begins and abortion. I however, will not. I’ll probably never bring that up to be honest.

However, in the study of “culture”, one of the things that makes us uniquely human, there are currently two camps that appear (at the moment) to be irreconcilable. One camp that focuses on social learning and how we construct the world around us through experience of learning from others (cultural evolution). Another camp focuses on how our psychology evolved through natural selection and holds that our psychological mechanisms are often innate and do not require social learning in many areas (evolutionary psychology). I consider myself to be an evolutionary psychologist, but I aim to synthesise the two, so I feel as if I have no horse to bet on here.

However, this is a huge finding for evolutionary psychology as it is impossible for a child to have ever seen a face. So it could not have learned to focus on faces from anyone else. It appears to be that our ability to focus on faces has been evolved and is present even before birth. This argument is very important to cognitive psychology. Its often referred to, in general terms, as “the poverty of the stimulus” argument. That is fancy academic talk for, how could you have learned it if you were never taught it? (fun fact, before becoming known as an outspoken political critic, noting the poverty of the stimulus in regards to language is why he became a super famous academic).

So this raises the question, if psychological mechanisms that are so important to our social and cultural lives (like language and the ability to see faces) are based on an evolved psychology. What else might be? A great deal of research is going into this today at institutes like the Center for Mind and Culture (where I work) and Oxford University’s Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology (where I study). There, researchers are continually using science to study culture and religion, and finding that even the most wild of ideas, religion, might be due to evolution as well. But it isn’t religion that evolves, but we have evolved to have religion.

This idea, although still controversial and relatively new, is starting to take hold. However, it is facing an uphill battle against those who view humans as something greater than biology, rather than the homo sapiens that we are.