Following another person's gaze can reveal a wealth of information critical to social interactions and also to safety. Gaze following typically emerges in infancy, and new research looking at preterm infants suggests that it's visual experience, not maturational age, that underlies this critical ability.
The research is published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
"To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study showing that some aspects of the early development of social cognition is influenced by experience, even when the human brain is highly immature," says psychological scientist Marcela Pea of Pontificia Universidad Catlica de Chile, lead researcher on the study. "Our results are important for modeling early cognitive development."
Previous research on early cognitive development suggests that some cognitive functions develop only after the brain has matured sufficiently, while other cognitive functions develop in response to a rich social environment.
To disentangle the roles played by neural maturation and environmental exposure in relation to gaze following, Pea and colleagues decided to compare the gaze following abilities of preterm and full-term infants.
"Because preterm infants are exposed to face-to-face interactions earlier (in terms of postmenstrual age) than infants who are born at term, they may become sensitive to gaze direction sooner as well," the researchers explain.
A total of 81 healthy infants participated in the study and they were split into four groups: Full-term 4-month-olds, full-term 7-month-olds, preterm 7-month-olds, and preterm 10-month-olds.
The preterm infants were born 2.5 to 3 months early thus, full-term 4-month-olds and preterm 7-month-olds had an equivalent postmenstrual age of about 13 months, but the preterm 7-month-olds had an additional 2.5 to 3 months of visual experience as a result of havin
|Contact: Anna Mikulak|
Association for Psychological Science