a baby with toy blocks looking off-cameraHow do infants learn to track other people’s gaze? Studies suggest that infants are unable to master gaze tracking before their brains have developed enough. However, new research from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (PUCC) suggests that brain development is not what leads to gaze tracking, but experience. According to an eye-tracking study performed with preterm and full-term infants, infants’ post-birth experience is central to mastering gaze tracking.

The researchers assessed the gaze-tracking skills of 81 healthy infants, dividing them into four groups:

  • full-term four-month-old infants.

  • full-term seven-month-old infants.

  • preterm seven-month-old infants.

  • preterm 10-month-old infants.

The preterm infants were born between 2.5 and three months early, which means that their brain development was equivalent to a “younger” full-term infant. The researchers hypothesized that if gaze-tracking skills were dependent on brain development, the full-term four-month-old infants and the preterm seven-month-old infants should have equivalent skills because their brains had been developing for the same length of time.

To test the infants’ gaze-tracking skills, infants participated in an exercise while sitting in their mothers’ laps. The infants watched a recording that began with an attention-grabbing visual cue. On screen, they saw a woman making peek-a-boo gestures. The woman turned her head, directing her gaze to the edge of the screen and moving toys appeared on either side of the screen. The researchers monitored which side of the screen the infants looked at. Each infant completed this exercise 20 times.

The preterm seven-month-old infants and preterm 10-month-old infants behaved like full-term 10-month-old infants. The full-term four-month-old infants randomly looked to either side of the screen when the toys appeared. This suggests that experience, not brain development, may be the central factor in developing gaze tracking abilities.

“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. Our results are important for modeling early cognitive development,” stated Marcela Peña, lead researcher and psychological scientist at PUCC.

This research is published in the journal Psychological Science.

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