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What's In a Gaze?

Posted by admin Wednesday, March 27, 2013

What’s In a Gaze?

 

We bet you think your baby has gorgeous eyes and that you spent many hours gazing into them. Well, you may or may not be pleased to know that it isn’t a coincidence that you think that – there are developmental and psychological purposes behind it.
 
1. If you look at a model of a baby’s skull, you’ll notice that their eyes are initially much bigger in relation to the rest of the head. The eyes are initially the main tool that your baby uses to engage with the world. The first thing is that their large diameter enables your baby to absorb as much information as possible about their surroundings.
 
2. While absorbing information is obviously very important for survival, what’s even more important for survival is bonding, and your baby’s eyes are how they do it. Bonding ensures a baby’s survival, because it makes sure that their parent/carer will love them andwant to attend to their every need. Given that they can’t attend to any of their own needs at all, it’s basically priority number 1 that someone reliably and consistently wants to do this for them, even in the face of how very needy they are and how difficult that is for those caring for them. If you think about it, the amount that babies need their parents is constant and exhausting in SO many ways that there needs to be a foolproof biological mechanism that ensures their needs are met, even when their parent is exhausted, stressed and anxious.
 
Bonding is therefore the number one key to survival for your baby, and bonding is a two way process, with both of you playing your part in creating the bond that exists between you.
 
Your baby’s eyes are vital for the whole process. They can’t bond through any of the normal ways we bond as adults – by saying or doing nice things, by expressing how much they care, by being there for us, but they can bond with us by making sure we find them absolutely irresistible. Notice how your baby’s eyes are proportionally bigger than the rest of their facial features – this is to make them seem more attractive to adults (have you ever noticed how in animations, characters are usually drawn with bigger eyes so that they seem cuter? Have you noticed how puppies and kittens have bigger eyes than adult animals? The concept is the same there too, for their parents – and for us!). With their big baby eyes, you are more likely to be drawn to gazing into them and developing a deep bond with them. 
 
Even as adults, we experience intimacy by looking into someone’s eyes, so your baby’s eyes represent their main tool for creating intimacy quickly.
 
 
But it doesn’t end there. Once you’re finding them irresistible, they need to keep your (bonding) attention, and they way they do that is through gazing back at you. Your baby will gaze intently back at you because they are programmed to recognise and respond to faces from birth. We are born with relatively few cognitive processes that are hardwired into our brains, but face recognition is one of them - so that your face catches their attention, causing them to play their part in bonding by looking at (i.e. responding to your gaze). By engaging with you and gazing into your eyes at the same time that you’re drawn to doing the same with them, a reciprocal bond will form between you. Research showed us long ago that babies who are just 9 minutes old pay more attention to faces than other shapes[1] and that they engage with faces in a unique way. 
 
It’s also been shown that babies aged just two days can distinguish their mother’s face from a stranger’s face.[2]
 
 
If we’re talking cognitive development, your baby’s gaze is also very important there. The ability to gaze at something comes first. Then the ability to pay attention to something develops, which leads to the ability to actually focus, or concentrate on it. The bonding gaze between you and your baby is actually also a key tool in helping their cognitive development along, because from gazing at you, your baby learns to follow your gaze, so that you develop the ability jointly gaze at something together. When your baby follows where you look (e.g. at a toy or an object of interest) you’re teaching them how to focus on other objects and to pay attention to them, without even knowing it. You’re teaching them about the world. So the bond between you has even more of a developmental functions than simply to make sure they’re cared for. 
 
It also means that the more time you spend engaging with them, the more time you’ll spend ‘leading’ their gaze, ‘teaching’ them how to focus their attention on something in the outside world and become familiar with it.
 
 
In the outside world, babies are attracted to different colours and visual effects, all of which are designed to help particular areas of cognition to develop at different times. This also means that food needs to be visually exciting and interesting, so that your baby wants to engage with it (yeah, we were always going to get a food reference in there!). Beige foods, for example, are not visually exciting, and will not catch your baby’s attention. The things that do catch your baby’s attention are going to become familiar more quickly because your baby wants to explore them and therefore spends more time in contact with them. The looks that pass between you and other objects help things to catch their attention.
 
But even that’s not all. Having a joint gaze, and then focusing joint attention on something is extremely important for language development skills, like comprehension, language production and word learning. Social developmental skills, like learning how refer to other people and how to have normal relationships, also comes from joint attention. So you might think: what’s in a gaze? But the answer is…a LOT!
 
 baby_eyes_-_freedigphoto.jpg
image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
 

[1] Goren, C.C., Sarty, M. and Wu, P.Y.K. (1975). Visual following and pattern discrimination of face-like stimuli by newborn infants. Pediatrics, 56, 544-549.
[2] Bushnell, I.W.R, Sai, F. and Mullin, J.T. (1989). Neonatal recognition of the mother’s face. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 7, 3-15.
 

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