Some rather curious research studying the brainwaves of mothers and their babies has come to a delightful conclusion: making eye contact puts your brainwaves “in sync” with one another, which likely boosts communication, learning, and empathetic understanding.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, notes that a similar effect has been known to apply to adults. Interested as to whether this type of connection was available from such an early age, the University of Cambridge team recruited 36 male and female babies, wired them up to some electrode-covered skull caps, and hooked them up to an electroencephalograph (EEG), something that measures electrical activity in the brain.
EEGs detect voltage changes occurring between neurons in the brain. A brainwave may sound like a colloquialism, but it refers to the collective behavior of millions of neurons, and they give an overall indicator of the activity of specific parts of the brain, or the brain overall.
Using an EEG to look for these brainwaves, the team hoped to see matching electrical patterns in the brains of both the “mothers” – here replaced by an unbiased female experimenter – and their extremely tiny children.
In the first experiment, they were in front of a video that involved the replacement mother singing nursery rhymes, something that is known to produce a robust emotional response from children. The chanting virtual human first looked directly at the infants, then away, then to the side but kept their gaze locked on the younglings.
This first and somewhat sinister-sounding experiment revealed that the brainwaves of the adult and the infants were most synchronized during the third position, the side-on stare. This may be because it looks more deliberate than when the person is looking at the infants face on, which sends a clear signal to the infant that that the adult wants to engage with them.
In a second experiment, a real person replaced the video. As they sung, they only ever looked right at the infants or they looked away. This time, the babies’ brainwaves were more synced up whenever direct eye contact was made.
Although the babies were always showing some degree of brainwave pairing throughout the experiment, they also made more vocalizations whenever direct eye contact was made. Infants that made more of a fuss showed even greater degrees of brainwave synchronicity than those that were a little less gregarious.
This shows that babies’ brainwaves aren’t just syncing up whenever they see something familiar; rather, it’s directly linked with an urge to communicate.
Neat though this may be, it’s still not entirely clear why this synchronization occurs, nor what triggers it on a neurological level. The EEG wasn’t as precise as the researchers wanted it to be, which meant that they couldn’t properly pinpoint exactly where in the brain the electrical signals were emerging from.
At this point, it’s entirely uncertain whether the same reaction works with adult men/fathers and young infants.
The team was also keen to note that these matching brainwaves aren’t examples of something more esoteric. “We’re certainly not claiming to have discovered telepathy!” co-author Dr Sam Wass, an experimental psychologist at Cambridge, said in a statement.
Either way, this study ends by suggesting that this mother-child synchronicity may be how “infants construct their own earliest social networks.”
So unless you spend all your time as a parent averting your gaze from your offspring, you’re doing something remarkable just by being around.