Babies Make the Link Between Vocal and Facial Emotion

Summary: Babies as young as six months of age are able to transfer emotional information from the auditory to visual mode, researchers report.

Source: University of Geneva.

The ability of babies to differentiate emotional expressions appears to develop during their first six months. But do they really recognise emotion or do they only distinguish the physical characteristics of faces and voices? Researchers from the University of Geneva (UNIGE), Switzerland, have just provided an initial answer to this question, measuring the ability of six-month-old babies to make a connection between a voice (expressing happiness or anger) and the emotional expression on a face (again, of happiness or anger).

The findings, published in the journal PLOS ONE, show that babies look at an angry face – especially the mouth — for longer if they have previously heard a happy a voice. This reaction to something new demonstrates for the first time that babies have an early ability to transfer emotional information from the auditory mode to the visual.

Emotions form part of our lives from a young age. Expressing emotions is the first tool available to babies for communicating with those around them. Babies express their emotions through their posture, voice and facial expressions from birth. These attitudes help their carers adapt their behaviour to the baby’s emotional state. A baby’s tears, for example, may be an expression of his or her distress and primary needs (to be fed or changed or to lie down). But is the opposite also true, asked UNIGE researchers, led by Professor Edouard Gentaz, president of the Psychology section of the UNIGE’s Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences and a member of CISA? Are babies capable of identifying the emotions expressed by adults? Do they adapt their behaviour to fit in with the emotions they are exposed to?

Early skills for discriminating emotions

The ability of babies to differentiate emotional expressions seems to develop in the first six months of life. During this period, new-borns and babies have a preference for smiling faces and happy voices. Prior to six months, they can distinguish happiness from other expressions such as fear, sadness or anger. From seven months onwards, they develop the ability to discriminate between several other facial expressions. It seems, therefore, that babies possess early skills for differentiating between emotions… but do they really recognise them or only distinguish the physical characteristics of faces or voices?

In an attempt to find an answer, 24 six-month-old babies took part in a study at the Geneva BabyLab. They were exposed to voices and faces expressing the emotions of happiness and anger. During a first phase devoted to auditory familiarisation, the babies faced a black screen and listened to a neutral, happy or angry voice for 20 seconds. In the second stage – based on visual discrimination lasting 10 seconds — the babies were placed in front of two emotional faces, one expressing happiness and the other anger.

The research team used eye-tracking technology to measure the baby’s eye movements with great precision. They were then able to determine whether the time spent looking at one or other of the emotional faces – or specific areas of the face (the mouth or eyes) – varied according to the voice they listened to. If the babies looked equally at both faces, it would not be possible to conclude that there was a difference. «On the other hand, if they clearly looked at one of them much longer, we could state that they are able to spot a difference between the two faces,» explains Amaya Palama, a researcher at the Laboratory of Sensorimotor, Affective and Social Development in UNIGE’s Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences.

Durations of all ocular fixations of a baby after listening to a voice expressing happiness. The size of the blue areas represents the duration of the ocular fixations and the lines represent the ocular saccades. image is credited to UNIGE.

Babies prefer what is new and surprising

The results of the study revealed that six-month-olds did not have a preference for either of the emotional faces if they had already heard a neutral voice or a voice expressing anger. On the other hand, they spent longer looking at the face expressing anger — especially its mouth — after hearing a voice expressing happiness. This visual preference for novelty on the part of six-month-olds testifies of their early ability to transfer emotional information about happiness from the auditory to the visual mode.

Based on this study, we can conclude that six-month-old babies are able to recognise the emotion of happiness regardless of these auditory or visual physical characteristics. This research forms part of a project designed to examine the development of emotional discrimination abilities in childhood funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF).

About this neuroscience research article

Source: Amaya Palama – University of Geneva
Publisher: Organized by
Image Source: image is credited to UNIGE.
Original Research: Open access research for “Are 6-month-old human infants able to transfer emotional information (happy or angry) from voices to faces? An eye-tracking study” by Amaya Palama, Jennifer Malsert, and Edouard Gentaz in PLOS ONE. Published April 11 2018,

Cite This Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]University of Geneva “Babies Make the Link Between Vocal and Facial Emotion.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 11 April 2018.
<>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]University of Geneva (2018, April 11). Babies Make the Link Between Vocal and Facial Emotion. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved April 11, 2018 from[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]University of Geneva “Babies Make the Link Between Vocal and Facial Emotion.” (accessed April 11, 2018).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


Are 6-month-old human infants able to transfer emotional information (happy or angry) from voices to faces? An eye-tracking study

The present study examined whether 6-month-old infants could transfer amodal information (i.e. independently of sensory modalities) from emotional voices to emotional faces. Thus, sequences of successive emotional stimuli (voice or face from one sensory modality -auditory- to another sensory modality -visual-), corresponding to a cross-modal transfer, were displayed to 24 infants. Each sequence presented an emotional (angry or happy) or neutral voice, uniquely, followed by the simultaneous presentation of two static emotional faces (angry or happy, congruous or incongruous with the emotional voice). Eye movements in response to the visual stimuli were recorded with an eye-tracker. First, results suggested no difference in infants’ looking time to happy or angry face after listening to the neutral voice or the angry voice. Nevertheless, after listening to the happy voice, infants looked longer at the incongruent angry face (the mouth area in particular) than the congruent happy face. These results revealed that a cross-modal transfer (from auditory to visual modalities) is possible for 6-month-old infants only after the presentation of a happy voice, suggesting that they recognize this emotion amodally.

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