Understanding the development of face processing

By the time we reach adulthood, most people have developed a finely-honed ability to read details like identity, age, gender, emotional state, and even personality characteristics from the faces of the people around them. Though we often take this ability for granted, it is actually quite remarkable. After all, faces are all pretty similar – each one consisting of similar looking parts (eyes, nose, mouth) arranged in a similar way (one above the other). Still, with only a quick look, we can read a wealth of information from faces and this ability seems to be critical for navigating our social world.

How do people do it?

Our team from Birkbeck, the Institute of Education (University of London) and the University of East Anglia has been awarded funding from the Leverhulme Trust to try and better understand how we develop our abilities to extract social information from faces. We are particularly interested in how these abilities develop and function in children and adults with Williams syndrome (WS) and Down syndrome (DS).

Our project

We have designed a series of engaging face-reading computer games, and simple puzzles which allow us to ask a series of questions about how children and adults of different ages go about the complex task of extracting and processing information from faces.

We are contacting families and schools across metropolitan London to recruit children aged 5 – 16 years to help with this by having a go at these games. We are particularly interested to recruit schools who might like their pupils to take part as a group in a scientific study and learn more about science in action, meeting and interacting with real life scientists who can provide a window into this fascinating career.

If you are a teacher or head teacher who would like to get your school involved, and/or receive more information about these studies – please click here.

We are also recruiting children and adults with and without Williams syndrome and Down syndrome to learn about how their face-processing skills work, and in a second set of studies how their face-processing behaviour relates to electrical activations in the brain. This activity is measured in the form of event related potentials, or ‘ERPs’, which we monitor via scalp electrodes placed in a cap that participants wear – like a swimming cap – connected to a computer. This recording method is entirely non-invasive and has the potential to reveal ground-breaking information about what is happening inside the brain from the instant a face appears, to when they make conscious decisions about it, e.g. “That’s Ted”, “He’s happy”.

Participation in this part of our project is expected to involve two activity sessions each lasting about 2 hours (including breaks), which will usually be conducted in our child-friendly testing rooms at Birkbeck, in Bloomsbury, Central London. You will be fully reimbursed for your travel expenses.

If you are a parent of a child aged 7 – 12 years who would like to receive more information about this part of our project and/or sign up to take part – please click here.
Read about one child’s experience of being involved (School Magazine Extract, May 2015).

The development of face processing in Williams Syndrome and Down syndrome.

We are very excited to investigate the development of face-processing strategies in children and adults with Williams syndrome and Down Syndrome. These genetic conditions are each characterized by a range of physical and psychological differences relative to the typical population, as well as often highly social personalities.

Infants, children and adults can be particularly interested in viewing faces, and research is starting to reveal how the processing mechanisms for these stimuli might be consistently different from that of typically developing children and adults. As in the typical population, however, we still have a lot to learn. For example, we know only a little about the critical characteristics for face judgments (e.g., what cues are we actually using to decide someone’s identity, emotional expression) and whether they might change as children with Williams syndrome and Down syndrome move towards adulthood. Investigating face processing in this group provides us with a special opportunity to unpack the contributions of things like social interest and experience with faces and maturation of critical aspects of the visual system, which are more closely intertwined in typically developing individuals.

If you are an individual with WS or DS, or the parent or carer of an individual with WS or DS who you think might like to take part and/or receive more information about this research – please click here.