Face Processing in Infants: Key Issues

The perception of faces is considered to be one of the most common visual stimuli and is significant for social interactions, whereas the inability to process faces relates to impairment. It actualizes the necessity of investigating the origins of face processing in infants. The study covers several sources regarding face processing in infancy, summarizing previous research on the topic and suggesting new methods to evaluate the issue. The gap found in the literature on this topic highlights the need for a deeper study of the theme concerning race preferences and parents’ depression’s influence.

Holistic Processing and the Perception of Certain Face Areas

One of the central questions raised regarding the topic concerns the perception of the face’s parts and the ability to perceive faces holistically. The significant work relating to face processing in infants is a study conducted by Miguel et al. (2019). Their research on rapid face processing claims that the previous studies provide little information concerning fear processing and other facial expressions’ developmental patterns (Miguel et al., 2019). The authors want to understand whether there are some specific parts of face that infants focus on more in order to read certain emotions’ demonstrations. In opposition to previous investigations, Miguel et al. (2019) found that at five months, “infants look longer at fearful faces than either angry or happy faces” (p. 502). Additionally, the upper section of the face creates longer watching times for negative emotions.

However, to comprehend the meaning of the concentration on specific face areas, it is necessary to understand if infants can generally perceive the face in a holistic manner. The research conducted by Nakato et al. (2018) relates to holistic processing in a mother’s face perception. The study summarizes several previous studies on face perception, which showed that infants distinguish their mothers’ and strangers’ faces. Given the earlier investigations that used the habituation method and presented unfamiliar faces, Nakato et al. (2018) suggested showing infants’ own mothers’ faces as stimuli and utilized preferential looking technique to solve the issue more effectively. Using a composite-face experiment, they concentrated on composite and non-composite face conditions and the difference between the infants’ perceptions of them. Thus, the authors concluded that only those infants that are older than seven months could process mothers’ faces and their expressions holistically.

Social Categories and Interaction’s Influence

Considering social factors and the influence that interaction with parents can have on face processing in infants is crucial in the analysis. Quinn et al. (2019) take into account additional aspects of face processing, including social categories, such as race and gender. The authors also hypothesize “how social biases favoring own-race and female faces are formed” (Quinn et al., 2019, p. 166). The authors claim that infants are able to respond to the social categories relating to faces’ appearances. They found inconsistencies in the literature relating to this issue: some researchers argue that infants tend to prefer the faces of their race, while others advocate the view that other-race faces grab more attention (Quinn et al., 2019). Resolving these contradictions, the authors, through computational models, claim that infants prioritize faces of their own race. It should be mentioned that experience with own- and dissimilar-race faces and different gender faces influences perceptual operations.

Regarding race perception, infants meet more faces of their race than of others. Such an asymmetry, as was mentioned above, predetermines the priority. In their work devoted specifically to the issue of race processing in infants, Quinn et al. (2018) link this imbalance with five development changes in the face processing process within infancy. This comes from the fact that infants need more time for face recognition, which is different from what they are used to. What is more, the authors mention that this preference can disappear if infants meet faces of different races as often as of their own.

Interaction with parents can be disrupted due to their depression. In their study on paternal depression’s effects on infant development, Koch et al. (2018) concentrate their attention on the issue of whether paternal postpartum depression and dissimilarities in face processing influence father-infant communication. The researches aim to fill the gap relating to postpartum depression in men as “most studies about post-natal depression have focused on mothers” (Koch et al., 2018, p. 264). Concerning face processing, they found that post-natal depression can cause cognitive and emotional problems in children as biases toward sad faces lead to obstacles in identifying adult faces expressing emotions.

Sleep Impact

In addition to natural development and the influence of social factors, sleep also affects face processing. Sun et al. (2018) investigate how circadian rhythmicity and sleeping activity cognitive processes in infants. The researchers summarized the previous studies that found the relation between sleep quality and the ability to recognize facial emotion only in adults. Sun et al. (2018) were the first to conduct a study on this relationship with regard to infants and filled this gap. They found that infants who have better sleep quality, who wake up less after starting a sleep cycle, showed a higher “eyes over mouth fixation ratio (EMR)” (Sun et al., 2018, p. 1). On the contrary, infants who sleep longer demonstrated greater pupil diameter changes responding to facial expressions that express emotions, which corresponds more with the reaction of adults.

Thus, the recent studies on face processing in infants use some methods that differ from prior measures. The researchers agree with previous works that holistic perception is possible only after seven months. There is a gap in literature relating to men’s depression’s influence on face processing in infants. In addition, there are flaws in existing knowledge with regard to race preferences. The presented works concentrate more on aspects that were either not covered by previous literature or caused controversy.


Koch, S., Pascalis, L., Vivian, F., Renner, A. R., Murray, L., & Arteche, A. (2019). Effects of male postpartum depression on father-infant interaction: The mediating role of face processing. Infant Mental Health Journal, 40(2), 263–276. Web.

Miguel, H. O., McCormick, S.A.; Westerlund, A., & Nelson, C.A. (2019). Rapid face processing for positive and negative emotions in 5-, 7-, and 12-month-old infants: An exploratory study. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 37(4), 486–504. Web.

Nakato, E., Kanazawa, S., Yamaguchi, & M. K. (2018). Holistic processing in mother’s face perception for infants. Infant Behavior and Development, 50, 257–263. Web.

Quinn, P. C., Lee, K., & Pascalis, O. (2018). Perception of face race by Infants: Five developmental changes. Child Development Perspectives, 12(3), 204–209. Web.

Quinn, P. C., Lee, K., & Pascalis, O. (2019). Face processing in infancy and beyond: The case of social categories. Annual Review of Psychology, 70(1), 165–189. Web.

Sun, W., Li, S. X., Wang, G., Dong, S., Jiang,Y., Spruyt, K., Ling, J., Zhu, Q., Lee, T. M., & Jiang, F. (2018). Association of sleep and circadian activity rhythm with emotional face processing among 12-month-old Infants. Scientific Reports, 1–11. Web.

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StudyStroll. "Face Processing in Infants: Key Issues." July 18, 2022. https://studystroll.com/face-processing-in-infants-key-issues/.


StudyStroll. 2022. "Face Processing in Infants: Key Issues." July 18, 2022. https://studystroll.com/face-processing-in-infants-key-issues/.


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