Babies May Read Your Poker Face

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

ByABC News
November 11, 2009, 7:05 PM

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.