Never underestimate the intelligence of an infant. Six-month-old babies can distinguish the faces of two monkeys better than adults or older children which scientists said on Thursday suggests babies have some early capabilities that do not increase, but lessen, with age.
"Babies already have certain abilities and the environment they are presented with could help them retain some of these abilities," Michelle de Haan of University College London told a news conference.
Rather than starting out as a clean slate and adding on more skills as they get older, there seems to be a peak time between six and nine months when babies` brains take in and process visual information to hone their perception skills.
"Something important is going on for setting up the way we recognise faces as adults," said de Haan.
As they get older, the infants` brains filter out information and their perception narrows, so that by the time they are nine months old they have a more difficult time or can no longer distinguish the differences between the two monkeys.
"We usually think about development as a process of gaining skills, what is surprising about this case is that babies seem to be losing ability with age," she explained.
Insights into human development
De Haan, whose research is reported in the journal Science, said the study could provide important insights into human development, particularly in the first year of life.
It may also help scientists identify peak times during an infant`s development when they are very responsive.
In the future she and her colleagues believe their findings could lead to earlier diagnosis and intervention in children suffering from development disorders such as autism.
"This is an important step forward in differentiating when perception arrives in the first year of life. It may be very important for understanding human development," Peter Stern, an associate editor of Science, added.
The scientists assessed the face recognition ability of 16 six-month-old babies and an similar number of nine-month-olds and adults.
Each group was shown colour photographs of an adult and a monkey and then the same photo along with an additional human or animal face.
By videotaping and recording the time each group stared at the new photo the scientists detected their face recognition ability.
All of the groups recognised the difference between the human faces but the six-month-old babies could tell apart the monkey faces much easier than the adults and the nine-month children.