Many mental and physical changes happen to people when they go through puberty, but there could be even more shifts that we didn't know about. A new study from researchers at Penn State suggests that adolescents begin viewing faces differently as they enter puberty and start transitioning to adulthood.

According to Penn State assistant professor of psychology and head of the Laboratory of Developmental Neuroscience Suzy Scherf, this research shows that puberty, not age, configures our ability to recognize faces as we grow into adults. This may be due to hormone changes that influence the brain and help recalibrate the nervous system in the body of a developing adolescent, she said in a news release.

“We know that faces convey a lot of different social information, and the ability to perceive and interpret this information changes through development,” Scherf explained to Penn State News. “For the first time, we’ve been able to show how puberty, not age, shapes our ability to recognize faces as we grow into adults.”

The researchers recruited 116 adolescents and young adults who were all the same age, but differed in their stage of puberty. Participants looked at 120 gray-scale photographs of male and female faces, and the researchers then measured their face-recognition ability using a computerized game, according to PSU.

Besides a change in facial recognition skills, the study results also showed that adolescents exhibited a peer bias by remembering other adolescent faces better than those from other age groups.

“This shows that adolescents are very clued into each other’s pubertal status. They can literally see it in each other’s faces, perhaps implicitly, and this influences how they keep track of each other. This may explain a well-known finding that adolescents organize their peer groups according to pubertal status and is relevant for understanding how adolescents begin to think about each other as romantic partners for the first time,” Scherf told Penn State News.

Source: Scherf S, Picci G, et al. What’s In A Face? Psychological Science. 2016.

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