High contrast shapes and patterns provide the babies with something simple and engaging to focus on, and in this focus – or intense concentration – they can allow their minds to rest. High contrast shapes may appear odd or even a little boring to adults, but they are designed to hold babies’ attention and the results from them is breath-taking.
In the early 1960’s, Dr. Robert Fantz, a developmental psychologist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, who believed that babies under two years of age could see well, designed a “peep box” that surrounded a baby sitting in an infant seat. He placed two objects directly in the baby’s view: a patterned black and white checkerboard and a plain grey card. Undetected, Dr. Fantz watched the baby through a little peephole and was able to determine that babies preferred the checkerboard to the non-patterned surface. Their eyes travelled consistently to the checkerboard.
Source: Fantz, R. “Maturation of Pattern Vision in Young Infants.” Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, Vol. 55 (1962), p. 907.
Once this was known, other studies followed in rapid succession. Dr. T.G.R. Bower, the behavioural scientist at the University of Edinburgh, well known for his studies in infant development, showed infants several different black and white shapes, as well as plain white, red, and yellow cards. Again, babies chose to look at the black and white items.
Source: Bower, T.G.R., “A Primer of Infant Development. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Co., 1977, p. 9.
Dr. Phillip Salapatek, a child psychologist at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, designed an elaborate electronic tracking device to follow an infant’s gaze. He learned that infants move their eyes to the edge of a black triangle on a white background rather than looking at the center of the blackness or whiteness. It was then understood that babies’ eyes seek the border because it is there that the contrast between black and white is the greatest.
Source: Salapatek, P.H., Kessen, W., “Visual Scanning of Triangles by the Human Newborn.”, Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, Vol. 3 (1966), pp. 155-67.
Deborah Brateman, the former head nurse of the Neonatal Intensive Care Nursery at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., reported that flash cards incorporating black and white patterns increase the amount of time babies spend looking at their environment from an average of 4 to 5 minutes to up to 45 minutes after being fed.
Many parents have reported that their newborn’s attention span increased from 10 seconds to 60 or 90 seconds after only one week of looking at black and white checkerboards for about 3 minutes a day.
Because of this, fixation helps learning. If your baby fixates on one object, information about that object gets through to the cortex – the deepest part of the brain – which means that there is an intact pathway for stimulating the brain’s growth.
Source: Dr. Ludington-Hoe, S., “How to Have a Smarter Baby”, Bantam Books, 1985, p. 74
Hannah Lazenby, 29, a maternity nurse from Harrogate, has looked after dozens of babies over the past 10 years, usually from the day of their birth. She believes a simple black and white image can soothe any crying baby: “It gives them something to concentrate on when they’re bombarded by so many different images after the calm of the womb. This is something very simple that they’re transfixed by – they can’t take their eyes off it. I have had children who have been fractious or had colic and found myself thinking, ‘You poor thing, I don’t know what else to do, I’ll give you this to look at.’ And it does seem to work.”
This is not just guesswork on her part. There is apparently only one thing newborn babies would rather look at than these black and white pictures – the human face. So when they gaze at these pictures, what exactly are they looking at? We can’t be sure, but most neuroscientists agree that they are transfixed by contrast. One theory is that this differentiation mimics the white-meets-colour effect of the thing the baby most wants to seek out: the eyes and mouth of the person who is going to feed them.
For the past 20 years, experiments by neuroscientists have shown that babies do indeed home in on this type of image. The preference lasts from birth until about seven months. “While babies can see from birth, their visual acuity is poor and they have problems changing their focus to near or far objects,” explains Professor Mark Johnson of Birkbeck College’s Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development in London, who has studied infant brains for two decades. “This means that if something is not at an optimal distance for them – about 50cm – it will appear fuzzy and de-focused for the first few months. The limitations in babies’ vision makes simple bold patterns with high-contrast boundaries more visible
Neuroscientists know babies seek out these images from simple preference experiments. They show babies pictures and note which ones their eyes are drawn to. Professor Usha Goswami, director of the Centre for Neuroscience in Education at Cambridge University, explains: “Anything with very obvious contrast – such as black and white edges and lines – is an optimal stimulant for the visual system,” she says. “This type of stimulation basically gets the system up and running