Babies May Read Your Poker Face

A Harvard lab finds babies can recognize fear and anger before they can talk.

Nov. 13, 2009 — -- 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.

"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.

A Baby Could Tell Two Monkeys Apart, Can You?

"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.

But nurture isn't everything. Scientists also have found that genetics may play a role.

For example, scientists recently have discovered that the 5-HTT gene, which codes for the powerful brain chemical serotonin, can determine the risk of depression. Each person has two copies of the gene, called alleles, and each copy can vary in length. Get a short-short combination of 5-HTT and you're at higher risk for depression than if your get a long-long combination.

Nelson thinks 5-HTT also may influence a child's ability to decipher emotions on faces.

"If you have short-short, you show more brain activity for fearful faces than if you had long-long," said Nelson.

Despite all of Nelson's discoveries, he said his lab and others have yet to try testing a child's ability to recognize deceit. According to other scientists, it may be difficult to study lying through facial recognition alone.

"There is no facial indicator of deception. There's nothing that you do with your face when you're lying that you don't do at other times," said Jeff Cohn, a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh.

Deception Is Difficult to Read in a Face

Cohn works with computer scientists to classify, analyze and detect emotions on people's faces, including pain and clinical depression. Rather than look at still photographs, Cohn said it's easier to detect deceit through the order and intensity of facial movements.

For example, take a person's smile when they receive a gift.

"If they tell you how much they loved your gift and if the smile is missing the contraction of the sphincter muscle around the eye -- the crow's-feet wrinkles -- the person probably wasn't so keen on your gift," said Cohn.

Cohn uses a method called Facial Action Coding System [FACS] developed by famous researcher Paul Ekman to train students to detect such signals. But Cohn warned it isn't something that can be picked up in a day.

"It is something that can be learned," said Cohn. "When we train people in the lab, typically it would take a semester."

Indeed, elite poker players bet on the difficulty to read deception on a person's face.

"Some people are easier to read than other people you know," said Buchner. "I just try to keep a straight face. Most people can't read physical traits anyway."