a baby looking intentlyHow long does it take for infants to develop their sense of sight? Research from York University is the first to identify the age at which infants develop a particular type of visual attention. The research team, led by Scott Adler, psychology professor in York University’s Faculty of Health, found that infants as young as three months can identify unique objects in visually crowded environments.

Thirty-four infants and 10 adults participated in the study. The researchers presented the participants with visual search tasks. The participants scanned a field of characters (like the letter ‘P’) until they identified the unique character (like the letter ‘R’). As the participants searched, their eye movements were measured using infrared tracking.

Three-month-old infants were able to locate unique objects in their visual field—like an R among a group of Ps. Adults have this skill too: being able to find one thing among many is called “bottom-up” attention. The infants were better at identifying something distinct (the R among the Ps) using bottom-up attention than identifying something that was missing (a P amid the Rs), a process that uses “top-down” attention.

How might this work in real life? Professor Adler explains, “For example, an infant can pick a red umbrella in a sea of grey ones. This indicates that babies at a very young age are able to selectively extract information from the environment, just like adults.”

People use bottom-up attention frequently in daily life, like when searching for misplaced keys. The study contributes to understanding how and when infants learn to selectively pay attention to stimuli in the visual field. Once they can distinguish unique objects, they are able to search visually and build their visual skillset.

This research is published in the journal of Attention, Perception, and Psychophysics.

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