The developmental emergence of unconscious fear processing from eyes during infancy

Sarah Jessen*, Tobias Grossmann

*Corresponding author for this work
8 Citations (Scopus)


From early in life, emotion detection plays an important role during social interactions. Recently, 7-month-old infants have been shown to process facial signs of fear in others without conscious perception and solely on the basis of their eyes. However, it is not known whether unconscious fear processing from eyes is present before 7 months of age or only emerges at around 7 months. To investigate this question, we measured 5-month-old infants' event-related potentials (ERPs) in response to subliminally presented fearful and non-fearful eyes and compared these with 7-month-old infants' ERP responses from a previous study. Our ERP results revealed that only 7-month-olds, but not 5-month-olds, distinguished between fearful and non-fearful eyes. Specifically, 7-month-olds' processing of fearful eyes was reflected in early visual processes over occipital cortex and later attentional processes over frontal cortex. This suggests that, in line with prior work on the conscious detection of fearful faces, the brain processes associated with the unconscious processing of fearful eyes develop between 5 and 7 months of age. More generally, these findings support the notion that emotion perception and the underlying brain processes undergo critical change during the first year of life. Therefore, the current data provide further evidence for viewing infancy as a formative period in human socioemotional functioning.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Experimental Child Psychology
Pages (from-to)334-343
Number of pages10
Publication statusPublished - 01.02.2016


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