Excerpted from The Guardian, September 2008:
A simple black and white image can soothe any crying baby: “It gives them something to concentrate on when they’re bombarded by so many different images after the calm of the womb. This is something very simple that they’re transfixed by – they can’t take their eyes off it. I have had children who have been fractious or had colic and found myself thinking, ‘You poor thing, I don’t know what else to do, I’ll give you this to look at.’ And it does seem to work.”
This is not just guesswork on her part. There is apparently only one thing newborn babies would rather look at than these black and white pictures – the human face. So when they gaze at these pictures, what exactly are they looking at? We can’t be sure, but most neuroscientists agree that they are transfixed by contrast. One theory is that this differentiation mimics the white-meets-colour effect of the thing the baby most wants to seek out: the eyes and mouth of the person who is going to feed them.
For the past 20 years, experiments by neuroscientists have shown that babies do indeed home in on this type of image. The preference lasts from birth until about seven months. “While babies can see from birth, their visual acuity is poor and they have problems changing their focus to near or far objects,” explains Professor Mark Johnson of Birkbeck College’s Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development in London, who has studied infant brains for two decades. “This means that if something is not at an optimal distance for them – about 50cm – it will appear fuzzy and de-focused for the first few months. The limitations in babies’ vision makes simple bold patterns with high-contrast boundaries more visible.” By the time they are one year old, vision in babies is approximately similar to that of adults, he adds.
Neuroscientists know babies seek out these images from simple preference experiments. They show babies pictures and note which ones their eyes are drawn to. Professor Usha Goswami, director of the Centre for Neuroscience in Education at Cambridge University, explains: “Anything with very obvious contrast – such as black and white edges and lines – is an optimal stimulant for the visual system,” she says. “This type of stimulation basically gets the system up and running – but all images do this to a degree, not just black and white ones.” We do not know yet whether babies see the same (whole) picture that adults see or whether they just focus on these lines and edges. Babies would be most likely to respond to any image that resembles a face, says Goswami,”especially when the image is an actual human or a symmetric depiction.”