Understanding the development of face processing

Start date


End date


Project website



Faces can provide us with a wealth of social information. By adulthood, most people have a finely-honed ability to read subtle cues to things like identity, age, gender, ethnicity, emotional state, focus of attention, and even personality characteristics from faces.  This ability is remarkable given the difficulty of the discriminations required; they are, after all, very similar as visual patterns.  Still, being able to quickly and accurately read face cues is critical for social cognition.  With the current project, we are investigating the development of the strategies children and adults use to extract this information from faces.  We are particularly interested in whether the cues that inform face judgements might change with age, which could contribute to the improvements in face processing that we see across development.

To date, most of the research in this area has relied on behavioural data alone. However, technological advances have recently enabled cortical function related to social cognitive tasks such as face processing to be investigated directly in children, as in adults.  We are therefore now able to use behavioural and electrophysiological techniques to reveal the information processing strategies underlying behavioural responses (accuracy, reaction times) on face processing tasks in 7 -  12 year old children and adults, while measuring event related potentials (ERPs) from scalp electrodes. This approach will allow us to provide the first temporal account of the neural response from stimulus onset until behavioural response, across development, in terms of the specific information processed in cortical networks.

In another exciting avenue of this research project, we are investigating the development of face-processing strategies in children and adults with Williams Syndrome (WS). Individuals with Williams Syndrome are typically fascinated with faces, and research is revealing how face processing in this group differs from that of typically developing children and adults.  As in the typical population, however, we know little about how the characteristics for making face judgements change as children with Williams Syndrome move towards adulthood.  Investigating face processing in this group provides us with a special opportunity to unpack the potential contributions of factors like experience with faces, maturation of the visual system and development of face processing strategies, which are closely intertwined in the typically developing population.



Lab members



Farran, E.K., Mares, I., Papasavva, M., Smith, F.W., Ewing, L., Smith, M.L. (2020). Characterizing the neural signature of face processing in Williams syndrome via multivariate pattern analysis and event related potentials. Neuropsychologia. https:/doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2020.107440

Mares, I., Ewing, L., Farran, E.K., Smith, F.W., Smith, M.L. (2020). Developmental changes in the processing of faces as revealed by EEG decoding. Neuroimage. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2020.116660

Ewing, L., Pellicano, E., King, H., Lennuyeux-Comnene, L., Farran, E.K., Karmiloff-Smith, A. & Marie L Smith (2018): Atypical information-use in children with autism spectrum disorder during judgments of child and adult face identity, Developmental Neuropsychology, DOI: 10.1080/87565641.2018.1449846

Ewing, L., Karmiloff-Smith, A., Farran, E.K., Smith, M.L. (2017). Distinct profiles of information-use characterize identity judgments in children and low-expertise adults. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance43, 1937-1943. doi.org/10.1037/xhp0000455

Ewing, L., Farran, E.K., Karmiloff-Smith, A., Smith, M.L. (2017). Understanding strategic information use during emotional expression judgments
in Williams syndrome. Developmental Neuropsychology, 42, 323-335. doi.org/10.1080/87565641.2017.1353995

Ewing, L., Karmiloff-Smith, A., Farran, E. K., & Smith, M. L. (2017). Developmental changes in the critical information used for facial expression processing. Cognition, 166, 56-66. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2017.05.017

Smith, M. L., Cesana, M. L., Farran, E. K., Karmiloff-Smith, A., & Ewing, L. (2017). A “spoon full of sugar” helps the medicine go down: How a participant friendly version of a psychophysics task significantly improves task engagement, performance and data quality in a typical adult sample. Behavior Research Methods, 1-9. doi:10.3758/s13428-017-0922-6

Research groups and centres

Our research is supported by research groups and centres of excellence.

Cognition, Genes and Developmental Variability Lab 

Research themes

Find out more about our research at Surrey: