New research from Princeton University has found a connection between adults’ and infants’ brains during natural play.

The study, which was published in the December issue of the journal Psychological Science, looked at how an adult’s brain syncs up with a baby’s brain (and vice versa) during direct one-on-one play.

photo: Daria Shevtsova via Pexels

Instead of the typical functional MRI technology researchers use to study the brain’s behavior, this study used functional near-infrared spectroscopy or fNIRS. The fNIRS technology allowed the researchers to measure blood oxygenation as a proxy for neural activity.

So what did the study find? When an adult researcher talked, read or sung to a baby (who was seated on their parent’s lab), both the adult’s and the baby’s brains were synchronized. When the researcher turned away from the baby to talk, the synchronization stopped.

Elise Piazza, an associate research scholar in the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, said in a press statement, “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.”

Piazza added, “While communicating, the adult and child seem to form a feedback loop. 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.”

—Erica Loop



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