Researcher Svein Magnussen wondered 15 years ago whether newborns can make out people’s facial expressions, but says he didn’t yet have the tools to investigate. Now, thanks to modern simulation techniques, as well as a wealth of information from previous studies, the University of Oslo professor and other Swedish researchers say they’ve accomplished a first: reconstructing how newborns see the world, the Telegraph reports.
Working with the University of Uppsala and Eclipse Optics in Stockholm, Magnussen reports in the Journal of Vision that babies 2 to 3 days old can make out facial expressions up to a foot away—or roughly the distance between the baby and its mother’s face while breastfeeding.
When examining this question in the past, researchers “invariably used still photos,” says Magnussen. But as a press release points out, “it’s easier to recognize something that moves, than a blurry still photo.” So the researchers shot videos of adults making various facial expressions and “filtered out the information which we know is unavailable to newborn infants,” per the release.
At a distance of four feet, adults watching the video guessed the correct expression at a random rate, but got it right 75 percent of the time from a foot away.
The conclusion: One foot is about the distance a newborn can make out facial expressions (because if adults can’t make out an expression, newborns can’t either).
What it means isn’t quite clear: “It’s important to remember that we have only investigated what the newborn infant can actually see, not whether they are able to make sense of it,” says Magnussen.