BYU study: Babies read peers' emotions at five months

Published: Friday, June 28 2013 2:45 p.m. MDT

Cousins Markham Reid Carter, left, and Lucas Dowell Richardson pose for a photo illustration on how babies as young as 5 months old can communicate.

Jaren Wilkey, BYU

PROVO — Infants may understand emotion and rudimentary communication at as early as five months of age, according to a new study out of BYU and Florida International University.

Previous studies held that the ability to recognize emotions in others emerged at seven months of age, but those studies used images of unfamiliar adults to test infants' abilities, said Ross Flom, an associate professor of psychology at BYU and one of the three authors on the study. Flom suspected infants would have better luck with emotional expressions similar to their own — those of other infants.

For the study, 40 infants aged 3.5 months to 5 months were presented with pictures of four-month-old babies with expressions depicting different emotions. The researchers simultaneously played an audio track from a different baby depicting one of the two presented emotions. The five-month-old age group would stare at the matching picture while the track played, indicating they could match and, therefore, recognize specific emotions in other infants.

The finding suggests that even infants are capable of rudimentary communication via body language, or affect, Flom said.

"We don't need to wait until they understand verbal language," he said. "Affective communication is one of the first things adults and infants share."

On the other hand, it also suggests adults should be aware of their own demeanor around infants, as infants who can recognize emotions in others may respond in kind. Separate studies have even linked mothers' depression to long-term delays in social and cognitive abilities, Flom said.

"We need to be aware as parents and adults that infants are sensitive to our affective states," he said, because adults' emotions can influence the infant's behavior.

Flom, who said he suspects children begin to develop emotional comprehension as early as 3.5 months of age, plans to continue his research in this area. In the future, he would like to run a similar experiment, presenting infants with video images of their own emotions.

EMAIL: epenrod@deseretnews.com

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