Bodies are highly significant social stimuli. Like faces, they convey a considerable amount of information about people, their emotions, and their intentions. Yet, while a great deal of research has addressed the early development of knowledge about faces, very little is known about the development of knowledge about bodies. The research supported by the award will address this issue by analyzing the nature of body knowledge development in infancy and the mechanisms that drive this development. Studies will examine when infants of different ages come to understand different aspects of bodies and faces, such as the parts they are composed of and the manner in which the parts are arranged and organized. This will be accomplished by analyzing how infants from 3 to 9 months of age react to systematic changes to body and face images, and by documenting which aspects of bodies and faces infants scan. A prominent theory suggests that body knowledge is minimal early in life, and proposes that body knowledge development is driven by information gained from the infant's own motor activities and from observing other people. The planned studies will test key predictions of this model. They will also indicate how the development of knowledge about bodies compares with the development of knowledge about faces. Moreover, studies supported by this grant will examine whether the development of body knowledge is driven by increasing tendency to focus on relevant information about people in the infant's environment.
The proposed research will contribute to the understanding of cognitive and social development by establishing how knowledge about people develops early in life. A fuller accounting of the typical development of body knowledge in infancy has the potential to aid in early identification and treatment of individuals with developmental disorders, particularly Autism Spectrum Disorder, which is associated with deficits in social perception. In addition, a comprehensive understanding of development of basic cognitive abilities, including infants' knowledge of bodies and faces, is important for educating parents and caregivers about development. Moreover, the studies supported by the grant will enable several undergraduate and graduate students to receive training in psychological research.