Gazing into a baby’s eyes may seem just a simple indulgence, but stares shared betwixt adult and child aren’t mere ogles, according to a new study, the pair meld minds: As their eyes lock gently, the caregiver’s brain waves fall into sync with the infant’s — and the infant’s align with the caregiver’s — smoothing the way for solid communication between them in the future.
Researchers discovered when a direct and friendly gaze holds the attention of both adult and baby, the effect in essence amplifies the efficacy of information exchanged — the eight-month-old participants in the study responded to the adoring, intent gazes of their caregivers with cheerful coos, babbles, smiles, and all-around bubbliness.
“Such findings arising from shared patterns of brain activity have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America,” TechnoChops reports. “Developmental cognitive neuroscientist, Victoria Leong, among the authors of the recent study, collaborated with her colleagues at UK’s University of Cambridge, Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, and University of East London.”
For the study, researchers interacted with 18 eight-month-olds while both were outfitted with EEG caps — which sport an array of electrodes to “measure the collective behavior of nerve cells across the brain,” as Science News puts it. Scientists sang nursery rhymes to the babies while looking directly at them, angled 20 degrees away from a direct stare, or looking away at a 20-degree angle.
In both scenarios where the two were facing or mostly so, the babies’ brain waves came into alignment with those of the researchers — and vice versa — so that the patterns fell into sync. This did not occur, however, when their eyes were averted.
Then, Science News continues, the “second experiment moved the test into real life. The same researcher from the video sat near 19 different babies. Again, both the babies and the researcher wore EEG caps to record their brain activity. The real-life eye contact prompted brain patterns similar to those seen in the video experiment: When eyes met, brain activity fell in sync; when eyes wandered, brain activity didn’t match as closely.
“The baby’s and the adult’s brain activity appeared to get in sync by meeting in the middle. When gazes were shared, a baby’s brain waves became more like the researcher’s, and the researcher’s more like the baby’s. That finding is ‘giving new insights into infants’ amazing abilities to connect to, and tune in with, their adult caregivers,’ Leong says.”
“Gaze,” the authors write in an introductory brief for the published work, therefore “brings infant–adult neural activity into mutual alignment, creating a joint-networked state that may facilitate communicative success.”
May, being key — although the team surmised that reciprocity in communication, it remains only a theory — further investigation will be necessary to establish the purpose(s) of simpatico brain waves. Leong takes keen interest in such connections, specifically between mother and infant — observed during the course of ordinary social interactions — spurred by cues such as eye contact.
As TechnoChops points out, “Experiments to test infants’ special sensitivity to direct eye contact from birth have been carried out in the past. The new research highlighted how gazing puts adult’s and baby’s brain waves in synch and how it can reinforce infants’ social responses like smiling, giggling, and vocalizing.”
It’s hard to resist this adorable feedback loop rippling positive effects for adult and baby into the future long beyond the coos and babbling — as science continues verifying even the odder sides of human instinct serve purposes we may not yet comprehend.