Brain wave: what happens when you and your baby make eye contact

Babies love to stare. They’re not being rude – it’s their way of absorbing knowledge about the world (and sometimes they’re simply not coordinated enough to turn away!) Babies especially love to stare at you, their mother, and once they’ve locked eyes with you, it can be hard for you to look away! Research suggests that this mutually agreed staring contest could be for a good reason. When a baby and an adult make eye contact, their brain waves fall in sync, a new study has found. And those shared patterns of brain activity may actually pave the way for better communication between baby and adult: babies make more soft little sounds when their eyes are locked onto an adult who is looking back at them.

Psychologist Victoria Leong of the University of Cambridge and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and colleagues fitted 17 eight-month-old babies with EEG caps (headwear covered with electrodes that measure the collective behaviour of nerve cells across the brain) for two experiments. In the first experiment, the babies watched a video in which an adult (also wearing an EEG cap) sang a nursery rhyme while looking either straight ahead at the baby, at the baby but with her head turned at a 20-degree angle, or away from the baby and with her head turned at a 20-degree angle.

When the researcher looked at the baby (either facing the baby or with her head slightly turned), the babies’ brains responded, showing activity patterns that started to closely resemble those of the researcher.

The second experiment moved the test into real life. The same researcher from the video sat near 19 different babies. 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.

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