Fetuses have a preference for faces and face-like shapes, and this preference develops in utero.
Young babies are more interested in looking at faces than looking at anything else. In fact, babies begin looking for faces soon after birth. It turns out, however, that babies already have a preference for looking at faces even while still in the womb. Researchers found that healthy 34-week-old fetuses turned multiple times toward shapes that look like faces.
This study is a landmark study. It's the first piece of evidence that fetuses respond to visual stimuli. The researchers knew that fetuses can see, but the researchers were able to get an actual response in this study. Thus, the findings show that it's possible for scientists to study visual perception and cognition in fetuses still in utero.
Researchers tested how 39 fetuses respond to patterns of light that resemble facial features. These fetuses were 34 weeks old, and in the final stages of their time in the womb. The researchers shone three red lights in a face-like pattern onto the mothers' stomach. Red light has the best chance of shining through to the uterus. The researchers placed two dots over a third one to mimic facial features. They then shone the pattern on one side of the fetus's head, and then moved it slowly.
The team also created a control pattern by reversing the first one. The control pattern consists of one dot sitting above two dots.
According to the team's findings, the fetuses turned to look at the “face” pattern more times than they turned to the control pattern. Fetuses turned toward the “face” pattern 40 times out of 195 tests. However, they turned to the control pattern only 14 times out of 195.
These findings show that fetuses in utero do indeed recognize and prefer to look at shapes that look like faces. There's a possibility that the fetuses turn toward the shapes because of their novelty. However, the researchers point out that the fetuses turned more times to the face patterns than to the control patterns. If the fetuses turned to the shapes just out of general interest, they would have turned to both patterns an equal number of times.
Of course, this study goes beyond just discovering that fetuses can recognize face shapes. This study also proves that fetuses can have visual experiences before birth. Other than that, the study also opens avenues into studying how babies develop their skills while still in the womb. Previous studies have found that newborns can figure out quantities. Now, researchers can look into whether or not babies can distinguish numbers while still in the womb.
The researchers are also looking at how fetuses can see motion while in utero. It's possible that fetuses might develop coordination skills by watching how their own hands and feet move. With further study, observations, and applications, we can find out more about how we develop from even before our birth.
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