Mothers who smile a lot at their babies and maintain eye contact “sync up” with them, improving brain development

Parents sometimes feel like there is a disconnect between them and their children, especially grown-up ones. But according to researchers from the University of Cambridge in the U.K., that probably wasn’t always the case. There was a time during their infancy when these children were in sync with their mothers, and this event facilitated how they learned about their social environment. In a new study presented early this year at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society’s (CNS) annual meeting in San Francisco, a team of cognitive neuroscientists showed evidence of neural synchrony between mother and child. This synchronization of brainwaves, according to their findings, is directly related to a baby’s social learning.

How mothers and their babies connect “neurally”

According to the researchers, being physically present to connect with an infant is nothing short of priceless. That is one of the many reasons that spurred them to conduct their study. In it, they investigated how a mother’s emotional responses toward various toys affected their babies’ interest in playing with them.

The researchers attached wireless electroencephalograms (EEG) to both members and allowed the babies to watch their mothers’ reactions toward certain objects. The mothers either smiled and said things like, “I like this” to show their approval (positive emotion), or frowned and said, “I don’t like this” to show their disapproval (negative emotion). The researchers then presented the toys to the babies and allowed them to choose which ones to play with.

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The researchers reported that the mothers’ emotional responses to the objects affected their babies’ decisions to interact with the toys. The same responses also affected the babies’ brain activity.

Social signals like eye contact with their babies increased the pair’s neural synchrony — an event denoted by the brainwaves of both mother and child following the same predictable patterns relative to each other. According to studies, the synchronization of neural activity is essential for processing information in the nervous system. The researchers also observed that social signals not only increased neural synchrony, they also improved the babies’ social learning.

“We found that stronger neural synchrony predicted a higher likelihood of social learning by the infant,” reported Victoria Leong, one of the authors of the study.

“Despite the fact that this is such a powerful learning mechanism, surprisingly little is known about how the human brain performs social learning,” she added. “When we connect neurally with others, we are opening ourselves to receiving information and influence from others.” (: Peoples’ brain wave patterns mysteriously SYNC UP when they are near each other, astonishing new science shows.)

The social mind and human interaction

Despite the significance and strength of their findings, Leong and her team believe that more studies are needed to fully understand neural synchrony and what leads to it. On the other hand, their discovery could be used to improve classroom learning, social learning, and even developmental disorders. Certain developmental disorders and mental difficulties result from the inability of parents and children to synchronize with each other, and this might have a lasting impact on the ability of children to learn and develop optimally.

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According to Thalia Wheatley, a neuroscientist from Dartmouth College who was also at CNS, there is also a need for new methods to better understand the social mind and how the human brain acts in concert with others.

“We can’t fully understand the human mind or any other social mind without understanding what happens in interaction,” she explained.

“There’s this huge gap in knowledge about how our brains work in concert with other minds. We’re this massively social species and yet the field of neuroscience has focused on the brain in isolation.”

To address this, Wheatley and her team are currently working on developing a method that allows people in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanners to converse with each other across different sites. They believe that studying the brain this way can shed light on how it mediates social interaction between humans.

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