As early as up to three days old and in specific distances, babies are already able to perceive movements of faces.

Not so much as detect actual emotions, but newborn babies can then see facial expressions.

Researchers at Institute of Psychology at the University of Oslo, along with University of Uppsala and Eclipse Optics in Stockholm, Sweden, conducted an experiment to see what newborn babies can perceive, and how far they can see. They found that infants' visual perception allows them to see facial expressions at 30 cm distance.

In the experiment, the researchers combined modern technology with previous insight regarding vision of infants. Contrast sensitivity and spatial resolution provided much information through behavioral studies, mostly in the 80s during which, experts found that babies tend to move their gaze towards figures with black and white stripes against those with uniformly grey backgrounds.

According to Svein Magnussen, professor at the Institute of Psychology, when the width and frequency is changed to create figures, it becomes possible to identify levels of contrast and spatial resolution that helps infants direct their gaze towards the figure.

The study also notes that it is easier to recognize a moving object rather than a still but blurry photo. The researchers allowed adults to view videos that showed facial movements changing from one facial expression to another. They believed that if the adults would be able to identify with the facial expressions, so could newborn babies.

In three out of four instances, the adults correctly determined the facial expressions 30 cm away. At a distance of 120 cm the adults' rate of identification was relative to random responding. 

The researchers concluded that the limit of a newborn baby's vision and perception of facial expressions is 30 cm.

Magnussen recalls that as far back as 15 years ago, the question of whether or not infants can see - and if they can, what they can see - had crossed his mind and his colleagues too. It was technologically impossible for them to test this at the time, up until a year ago, when they brought back the idea to an actual study. Magnussen calls this "an old idea which nobody had tested in the meantime."

"Previously, when researchers have tried to estimate exactly what a newborn baby sees, they have invariably used still photos," adds Magnussen. Taking into account our dynamic world, however, the test came up with more accurate results, focusing on motion of images.

Magnussen and co-authors wrote about their findings published in Journal of Vision.

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