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Elinor McKone, Anna Gilchrist; Faces versus expertise: Early maturity of face recognition in children. Journal of Vision 2003;3(9):105. doi: 10.1167/3.9.105.
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In adults, faces are “special” in that configural (holistic) processing occurs for upright faces, but not inverted faces or most objects. A major debate is whether this reflects an innate face recognition module, or the many years of expertise that adults have with faces. Important empirical evidence is the rate of childhood development of face recognition. Widely cited early studies claimed that configural processing for faces did not begin until 10 yrs. This view has continued to drive a focus on 6 – 14 yrs as the age range to test, and an almost reflexive claim that expertise in face processing takes many years to mature. Here, we argue that this view is wrong. Using appropriate methodological criteria (e.g., discounting studies with floor effects in the younger age groups), a literature review indicates that many key phenomena of adult face processing — inversion effect, composite effect, cross-race deficit, etc — are present in 6 yr olds (the youngest age group tested). In new work, we show distinctiveness effects in 6–7 yr olds. A set of Original faces was made to look more distinctive (“would stand out more in a crowd”) either by a Configural manipulation (eyes closer together) or by a Local feature manipulation (eyebrows bushier; Leder & Bruce, 1998). In adults, recognition memory was more accurate for the Configural version than for the Original, and also for the Local version than for the Original; also, the Local effect was equally strong upright and inverted, while the Configural effect occurred only for upright faces. The same qualitative pattern of distinctiveness and inversion effects occurred in 6–7 yr olds. Moreover, when memory for Original faces was equated across age groups, there was no age-related increase even in the quantitative size of the effects. We conclude that the focus of future studies must shift to much younger children. Indeed, recent infant studies suggest that face recognition may mature on a similar timescale to language.
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