Although it may seem difficult for adults to understand what
an infant is feeling, a new study from Brigham Young University finds that it’s
so easy a baby could do it.
Psychology professor Ross Flom’s study, published in the
academic journal Infancy, shows that infants can recognise each other’s
emotions by five months of age. This study comes on the heels of other
significant research by Flom on infants’ ability to understand the moods of
dogs, monkeys and classical music.
“Newborns can’t verbalise to their mom or dad that they are
hungry or tired, so the first way they communicate is through affect or
emotion,” says Flom. “Thus it is not surprising that in early development,
infants learn to discriminate changes in affect.”
help babies to understand emotions
Infants can match emotion in adults at seven months and
familiar adults at six months. In order to test infant’s perception of their
peer’s emotions, Flom and his team of researchers tested a baby’s ability to
match emotional infant vocalisations with a paired infant facial expression.
“We found that 5 month old infants can match their peer’s
positive and negative vocalisations with the appropriate facial expression,”
says Flom. “This is the first study to show a matching ability with an infant
this young. They are exposed to affect in a peer’s voice and face which is
likely more familiar to them because it’s how they themselves convey or
communicate positive and negative emotions.”
In the study, infants were seated in front of two monitors.
One of the monitors displayed video of a happy, smiling baby while the other
monitor displayed video of a second sad, frowning baby. When audio was played
of a third happy baby, the infant participating in the study looked longer to
the video of the baby with positive facial expressions. The infant also was
able to match negative vocalisations with video of the sad frowning baby. The
audio recordings were from a third baby and not in sync with the lip movements
of the babies in either video.
Babies learn a lot at
a very young age
“These findings add to our understanding of early infant
development by reiterating the fact that babies are highly sensitive to and
comprehend some level of emotion,” says Flom. “Babies learn more in their first
2 1/2 years of life than they do the rest of their lifespan, making it critical
to examine how and what young infants learn and how this helps them learn other
Flom co-authored the study of 40 infants from Utah and
Florida with Professor Lorraine Bahrick from Florida International University.
Flom’s next step in studying infant perception is to run the
experiments with a twist: test whether babies could do this at even younger
ages if instead they were watching and hearing clips of themselves.
And while the talking twin babies in this popular YouTube
clip are older, it's still a lot of fun to watch them babble at each other.