Babies and adults brains “sync up” during play

It is a great joy to many people to hold a tiny life in their hands and pour all their love and affection into it. In return, the babies also respond positively to the person who shows love. But how does this work?

A team of researchers from Princeton Baby Lab in the US studied the brain activities between a group of 18 children of ages 10 to 15 months and an adult experimenter.

“Previous research has shown that adults’ brains sync up when they watch movies and listen to stories, but little is known about how this ‘neural synchrony’ develops in the first years of life,” says cognitive psychologist Elise Piazza.

The results of this study which was published in the journal Psychological Science, has shown that neural synchrony is important in language learning and social development especially for the children.

The researchers had to study real-time communication by using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) which is safe and records oxygenation in the blood as proxy for neural activity.

It was conducted by investigating the neural coordination between adults and babies while they played with toys, sang songs and read books. There were 42 infants and toddlers out of which 21 had to be excluded because they squirmed too much and three others refused to wear the infrared-measuring cap, which left 18 children.

The experiment was divided into two parts. In the first part, the adult experimenter spent five minutes directly with the child while playing with toys, singing nursery rhymes or reading Goodnight Moon while the child sat on their parents’ lap. In the other part, the experimenter turned and talked to another adult while the child played quietly on their parents’ lap.

Of course it’s expected that when adults and children interact there will be a connection between them but when they turn away from each other, the connection is broken. However, there were also surprising results. It was found out that during the face-to-face interactions, the babies’ and adults’ brains were synchronised in areas with high-level of understanding the world most especially in the prefrontal cortex.

It was also seen that the babies’ brains was often leading the adult’s brain by a few seconds, showing that the baby not only passively receives input but can also guide the adult on what they may want to do next like what toy to play with or what book to read.

“While communicating, the adult and child seem to form a feedback loop,” Piazza added. “That is, the adult’s brain seemed to predict when the infants would smile, the infants’ brains anticipated when the adult would use more ‘baby talk,’ and both brains tracked joint eye contact and joint attention to toys. So, when a baby and adult play together, their brains influence each other in dynamic ways.”

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