The still face experiment

The "Still Face Experiment" video begins with a mother playing with her baby. She looks into her child's eyes, follows the baby's cues as she points and laughs. "They're working to coordinate their emotions and their intentions," explained Professor Edward Tronick.

Then the mother is asked to turn away, before returning to the face-to-face position. But this time, she is not to react to her baby in any way, and has to keep a "still" face.

The baby immediately picks up on the change and after trying - and failing - to engage her mother, begins to squirm, squeal and cry.

In subsequent media interviews, Prof Tronick said babies are extremely responsive to the emotions and social interaction they get from the world around them. The Still Face Experiment explores what happens when those interactions stop.

He said the danger of neglect - whether due to a mother's post-partum depression, drug abuse or being subject to violence - is that over time, the infant's social-emotional development may fail and lead to aberrant neurological pathways.

Tragically, the infant may feel helpless and become apathetic, withdrawn and depressed. Others may become angry, hyper-vigilant and emotionally brittle.

The Still Face Experiment is still used to identify infants whose emotional and coping capacities are compromised, and to identify relational disorders in infants and parents. Videos of the experiment are used in hundreds of training programmes in infant and child mental health.

When asked if mums have to be constantly "in sync" with their children, responding to their every move, Prof Tronick said it is not possible for mothers to respond to their children 100 per cent of the time.

He said that moving in and out of sync with their babies is not only normal, but can also be a positive learning experience for both parent and child.

YouTube link: watch?gl=SG&v=apzXGEbZht0&hl=en-GB

This article was first published on June 14, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.