Infant in the neuroimaging lab

A 7-month-old baby sports a cap for tracking the brain’s response to fearful, happy and angry faces. Credit: Cat Thrasher

Neuroscience

Infants attuned to others’ fear become altruistic toddlers

A long look at a fearful face predicts caring behaviour among 14-month-old children.

Babies who recognize distress in the faces of others tend to grow into altruistic toddlers.

Tobias Grossmann at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and his colleagues tracked the eye movements of 7-month-old infants as they looked at images of faces expressing fear, anger or happiness. When the same children reached 14 months old, they were evaluated on whether they exhibited ‘helping behaviour’, such as attempting to aid an experimenter who, while drawing, ‘accidentally’ dropped her pen.

Seven-month-old babies who took a long first look at — and then more effectively disengaged from — fearful faces were more likely to grow into toddlers who displayed concern for others, compared with infants who barely glanced at fearful faces. Attention to the other expressions showed no such correlation.

Babies’ attention to fearful faces during the test was linked to activity in a specific brain region involved in cognitive control, the authors say.