Babies May Read Your Poker Face

PHOTO A baby gestures in a cognitive neuroscience laboratory at Children?s Hospital Boston.

Book smarts can get you far, but the ability to read a person can get you a date, ward off scams or, if you happen to be Eric Buchman, it can help you earn $2.5 million.

On Monday Buchman, 30, finished fourth in the World Poker Series in Las Vegas adding $2.5 million to the hundreds of thousands of dollars he's won at World Poker Series tournaments before. With eight years of professional poker underneath his belt, Buchman's win was due to his skill and, in part, his ability to read other people.

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"You might be able to read their face, how they're handling their chips, how they're looking at you, if they're looking away, betting patterns -- everyone's different," said Buchman, of Valley Stream, N.Y. "Some people might look nervous because they're weak, and some people may look nervous because they're strong."

Scientists at Harvard think that sort of emotion-detection is so crucial in everyday life that they're willing to cajole crying, squirming babies into an electrode "net" to see how to see how humans first learn to read faces.

At Dr. Charles Nelson's lab at Children's Hospital Boston, babies help him determine when humans begin to recognize faces not by pushing buttons or pointing, but simply by looking at pictures on a screen.


Cameras embedded in the screen track the baby's eye movements within a millimeter of accuracy as they examine the faces. Meanwhile, a computer logs the child's brain activity.

By comparing changes in eye movement and brain activity for each picture, Nelson can determine when a child recognizes a difference in a face -- such as in a surprised face or a frightened one -- and when the child misses those subtleties.

"There are individual differences to sensitivity to faces, and our hypothesis is they have the origins early at life," said Nelson, a professor of pediatrics and neuroscience at Harvard Medical School.

In fact, Nelson said children may start distinguishing faces by species, gender, race, and age by their first birthday. However, there's a tradeoff: The more specialized humans become recognizing some faces, the more they sacrifice abilities to recognize other faces.

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"If I showed you [an adult] two different monkeys you would have a difficult time distinguishing the two faces. You could do it, but it would take time," said Nelson.

However, "at 6 months of age a baby can easily discriminate two monkey faces, but at 9 months it's difficult for them," he said.

Nelson's work has shown that infants are capable of distinguishing happiness, fear, anger, sadness and disgust even before they can speak. Humans are especially good at recognizing fear.

"Infants look longer at fear; they show more brain activity at fear," said Nelson. "They aren't afraid, but if given the choice they look at fear."

He isn't sure why babies pay more attention to fearful faces, but Nelson hypothesizes it is hardwired into children's brains to protect them. The faster a child picks up on mom and dad's fear, the faster the child realizes there's danger.

Results from Nelson's experiments also have shown that a child's environment can influence their ability to read faces. Children who were physically abused at a young age have proven to be much faster at detecting an angry face than a child who was not abused. Nelson said researchers in Kentucky found that while most infants prefer female faces, babies raised by stay-at-home dads preferred male faces.

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