We often talk about the need to build strong, positive connections with kids in their earliest years—but a recent study out of the University of Cambridge in the UK suggests that doing so actually rewires our brains, and those of our kids. We actually can “sync” our brains to those of infants, and in doing so, support a stronger connection between us. And infants’ brains, rather than being “blank slates” or passive receptacles, are doing a ton of work as well.
This study, which examined the brainwaves of 36 infants, measured the infants’ brain activity as it changed depending on how an adult was interacting with him or her. In one study, the activity was measured while an adult sang a nursery rhyme, either looking straight at the infant, looking away, or with the adult’s head turned but eyes still on the infant.
Why Our Attention Matters
The researchers, from the Baby-LINC Lab, found that the infants’ brainwaves were more in sync with the adults’ when the adult was looking directly at the baby, and even more so with the head turned but eyes looking at the infant. This position, the researchers argue, communicates that the gaze is intended for the child: that the adult is deliberately focusing his or her attention and offering a chance to communicate. In effect, this stance seems to say: “I see you, in the midst of everything else I am doing.”
In another study, both infants’ and adults’ brain waves were more synchronized to each other when the infants and adults were looking at each other, rather than away. As Dr. Victoria Leong, lead author, argues, “This mechanism could prepare parents and babies to communicate, by synchronising when to speak and when to listen, which would also make learning more effective.”
In real life, we can think of the many opportunities we have throughout the day to mimic this exact process. Even—and especially—out of the lab, we can think about communication as a two-way street, and one which we can prepare children for.
Although we’re not sure how this mechanism works, it is a helpful metaphor to think about when thinking about interacting with kids. Even children far beyond the infant stage can benefit from these signals that it’s time to listen or talk—eye contact, but also pauses and “wait time,” or time to process what they’ve heard. In general, this kind of research is profound in suggesting how much our attention matters—even when we’re not able to see the effects.