Expert on Infant Learning Honored by Peer Group

Research Shedding Light on When Babies Understand Facial Expressions, More

Oct. 2, 2009

A psychological research organization has honored a UT Dallas infant learning expert who studies how babies make sense of voices, facial expressions and other communication signals.

In recognition of her “sustained outstanding contributions to the advancement of psychological sciences,” Dr. Melanie Spence was recently named a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science (APS).

“I am honored by the election to Fellow status and grateful to the APS Board for recognizing my research,” said Spence, who is a professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

Spence directs the Infant Learning Project, a research program that studies how and when infants under 1 year of age distinguish speech and facial cues that communicate different messages. The research is conducted by showing infants a series of faces and speech stimuli via a computer monitor and observing infants’ attention to changes in the stimuli.

“When adults speak to infants, they vary the pitch and timing of their speech depending on the situation,” said Spence. “For example, adults talk with lower-pitched speech to comfort a distressed infant and higher-pitched speech with more exaggerated intonation to communicate approval to infants.”

Spence and her colleagues have learned that infants begin to distinguish these differences between 4 and 6 months of age.

“We have found that infants become more skilled between 6 and 10 months of age at distinguishing emotions – such as ‘happy’ and ‘disgust’ – on realistic, moving faces,” said Spence.

Infants’ detection of emotional signals in faces and voices is important for maintaining effective social interactions with parents and other caregivers. According to Spence, these findings shed light on early skills involved in social-communicative functioning.

The studies exploring infants’ processing of facial emotions were conducted with Dr. Emily Touchstone, director of the UT Dallas Infant Development Program.

Parents interested in participating in the Infant Learning Project may complete an online form.

In addition to conducting the Infant Learning Project, Spence serves as program head for the graduate programs in psychological sciences and is affiliated with the Center for Children and Families and the Callier Center for Communication Disorders


Media Contacts: Teala Miller, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, newscenter@utdallas.edu
or Debra Brown, UT Dallas, (214) 905-3049, debra@utdallas.edu

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Melanie Spence “We have found that infants become more skilled between 6 and 10 months of age at distinguishing emotions,” said Dr. Melanie Spence, a professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

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