The developmental origins of subliminal face processing

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2020 Sep:116:454-460. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2020.07.003. Epub 2020 Jul 10.


Sensitive responding to facial information is of key importance during human social interactions. Research shows that adults glean much information from another person's face without conscious perception, attesting to the robustness of face processing in the service of adaptive social functioning. Until recently, it was unclear whether such subliminal face processing is an outcome of extensive learning, resulting in adult face processing skills, or an early defining feature of human face processing. Here, we review recent research examining the early ontogeny and brain correlates of subliminal face processing, demonstrating that subliminal face processing: (1) emerges during the first year of life; (2) is multifaceted in response to transient (gaze, emotion) and stable (trustworthiness) facial cues; (3) systematically elicits frontal brain responses linked to attention allocation. The synthesized research suggests that subliminal face processing emerges early in human development and thus may play a foundational role during human social interactions. This offers a fresh look at the ontogenetic origins of unconscious face processing and informs theoretical accounts of human sociality.

Keywords: Face processing; Infancy; Subliminal processing; Unconscious processing.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention
  • Consciousness
  • Cues
  • Emotions
  • Facial Recognition*
  • Humans