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Visual 'diets' of infants provide the building blocks of human vision

We often wonder what babies see and how they perceive the world around them. It turns out, their visual experiences are vastly different from ours and play a crucial role in building the foundation for human vision. A new study by Indiana University researchers sheds light on this fascinating aspect of infant development.

Special “diet” of infant vision

Research suggests that the visual world of infants is fundamentally different from that of adults. Instead of perceiving a complex array of objects and colors, babies are primarily drawn to high-contrast edges and simple patterns. This preference is not merely aesthetic; it serves as a crucial form of visual nourishment, essential for the proper development of their visual systems.

These high-contrast elements act as building blocks, helping infants learn to process and interpret visual information, ultimately leading to the complex visual perception abilities seen in adults. This early focus on simplicity and contrast is believed to be a universal aspect of infant visual development, regardless of cultural or environmental differences.

“As with food, young infants do not start with rich, complex meals or pizza, but rather with simple, developmentally specific nourishment,” explained Professor Linda Smith, the principal investigator of the study. This early visual diet is crucial for the development of strong visual skills.

World of contrast in infant vision

To understand what babies actually see, the researchers placed head cameras on infants and adults. The videos revealed that infants encounter high-contrast images all around them, even in everyday objects like lights and ceiling corners. These simple patterns are not just preferences but essential building blocks for their visual development.

“You can buy ‘baby flash cards’ for newborns that show these simple, high-contrast images. What the head-camera videos show, what this work shows, is that young infants find these types of images all around them in their daily life, just by looking at things like lights and ceiling corners,” noted Erin Anderson, a former postdoctoral researcher in Smith’s lab.

Universal infant visual diet

To determine if the observed vision preferences in infants were universal, researchers expanded their study beyond the controlled environment of Bloomington, Indiana. They ventured to a small fishing village in Chennai, India, where living conditions, cultural practices, and visual environments were significantly different.

Despite these disparities, the study found a consistent pattern: the youngest infants in both locations exhibited a shared preference for high-contrast edges and simple patterns. This striking similarity across diverse environments suggests that the early visual experiences of infants, particularly their attraction to high contrast and simplicity, may be a universal phenomenon, independent of cultural or environmental influences.

These findings underscore the fundamental nature of this early visual “diet” in shaping the development of the visual system in humans.

Implications for AI and human vision

The findings of this study have broader implications, extending to the development of artificial intelligence (AI) visual systems. The researchers found that training AI systems with images characteristic of early infancy leads to better visual recognition skills than training with random or adult-oriented images. This suggests that the early visual diet of infants could serve as a model for developing more effective AI visual systems.

The research also raises intriguing questions about the evolution of human vision and motor development. Why do human babies have such slow motor development compared to other animals? The study suggests that this slow pace might be crucial for building a smart visual and auditory system.

“One of the things I always used to ask as a grad student – and maybe we’re getting a chance to answer it – is why do human babies have such slow motor development. They spend about three months just listening and looking and another six months with a little bit of posture and head control. Why are they so slow? Horses come out and run races,” said Professor Smith.

This research opens up new avenues for exploring the connection between infant development and the evolution of human vision. The study not only deepens our understanding of infant visual perception but also has the potential to improve AI systems and shed light on the evolution of human vision.

It’s a reminder that even the simplest visual experiences in early life can have a profound impact on our visual development and the way we perceive the world.

The study is published in the journal Science Advances.


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