Talking to babies: How friendly eye contact can make infants tune in -- and mirror your brain waves
© 2018 GWEN DEWAR, PH.D., ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
How do children learn the secret of good communication?
It can't be too easy, because the world is rife with misunderstandings and crossed signals.
Too often, people go through the motions of exchanging information, but never really listen to each other.
In recent years, researchers have started to look inside the
brain for answers. They've confirmed that good communicators don't just trade
words; they also mirror each other's brain activity patterns.
And for babies,
nonverbal cues play a crucial role during the process: Our direct gaze may be the
signal that makes babies tune in and learn.
Here are the details--what researchers have learned about
listening, synchronized brain activity, and talking to babies.
Using technology to peer in the brain
We can't open someone's skull and watch thoughts unfold. But
brain scanning technology allows us to make helpful inferences.
For instance, we know that neighboring neurons fire together
when they are working on a common task, and these group firings produce brain
waves. If you wear a cap of electrodes, we can record these brain waves on an
electroencephalogram, or EEG. Depending on what your brain is doing, you
generate different EEG patterns.
Alternatively, we can use another method, functional
magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). It
allows us to infer patterns of brain activity by tracking blood flow in the
Whichever method we choose, the really cool thing is that we can use it to study
communication between brains.
For example, if I tell you a story--and you really listen--your
patterns of brain activity will start to mirror mine.
Usually this happens after a brief delay (since you have to
hear and process what I'm saying). But sometimes the mirroring goes in the
other direction. You exhibit a distinctive brain pattern before I do--as if you
are so tuned into my story, you can predict what words I will say next.
How can we be sure this matching is the result of
communication? It appears that people match only when successful communication
After a storytelling session, Greg Stephens and his
colleagues conducted exit interviews with listeners to test their comprehension.
The people who performed well were those who experienced matching brain activity
(measured by fMRI) during the communication session.
The people who showed poor comprehension were the ones whose
fMRI's failed to match up with the storyteller's.
And those anticipatory brain patterns? The more of those a listener experienced, the
higher they scored on the comprehension test. (Stephens et al 2010).
So brain science provides us with an exciting new channel
for studying communication. When we send messages to each other, the sender and
receiver activate their brains in similar ways. Some of the same patterns
required to encode the message are also used to decode it. The more closely we
tune into each other, the more similar our brain activity becomes.
But what about babies? What does their brain activity look
like? Do they have the ability to mirror?
This is an especially interesting question because babies are
only beginning to learn language. We can't expect them to understand many of
our words. We can't test their comprehension by asking them to tell us what we
said. But we know they are learning to communicate
-- learning to pay attention to the things we are looking at, learning to
engage us with eye contact, learning to read our emotional intentions, learning
to infer the gist of our messages.
Talking to babies: Do babies mirror brain our brain waves?
Image from Leong lab by Cambridge University
Victoria Leong and her colleagues wanted to understand
mirroring in infants, so they designed baby-friendly experiments using EEGs.
In the first experiment, the Leong's team presented 17
babies (approximately 8 months old) with three different video playbacks. Each
featured the same woman singing a nursery rhyme, but the woman's body language
differed from one condition to the next:
- In one condition, the woman faced the camera head-on,
and looked directly at the viewer.
- In another condition, the woman's head was
turned to the side, but her eyes continued to peer directly at the viewer.
- In the third condition, her head was pointed to the
side and her gaze was indirect.
During filming, the researchers recorded the woman's brain
waves using electroencephalography. Then, during playbacks, they recorded the
babies' EEGs as they watched. What were the results?
In each of the conditions where the woman made eye contact,
the babies' brain activity mirrored that of the woman. But when the woman's
gaze was averted, the brain waves didn't match.
The babies watched the woman just as much whether she made
eye contact or looked away. So the mirroring wasn't merely the result of paying
attention. Shared gaze appeared to be a crucial cue -- a signal that helped
them tune in and synchronize brain waves.
Did the babies ever anticipate the woman's brain waves?
There was no evidence of that. The mirroring was all one-way -- the woman's distinctive
brain waves preceding those of the infants. Maybe infants need more experience listening
to these nursery rhymes, or need to be more familiar with the person singing
But the babies' brain waves were clearly matching those of
the woman. And researchers were curious
about what would happen during a live interaction. How might the woman's brain activity change if she
could see and hear the infant?
To answer, Leung's team conducted a second experiment that was similar to the first, except this time the woman and baby interacted live, in person, face-to-face.
In this case, not only did the babies track the woman's brain waves, the woman sometimes mirrored the babies' brain waves. And once again, the crucial cue was direct gaze. Adult and baby had to make eye contact for the brain waves to match up.
So both adults and babies use direct gaze as a cue for
synchronizing brain activity, and this direct gaze is probably important for
babies to learn.
Eye contact is a powerful sign that we intend to communicate
something. It may -- metaphorically speaking -- open up the flood gates,
allowing us to take in the details that a sender is trying to communicate.
How does it work? Scientists are still figuring that out. As
I note above, it's likely that the brain performs similar tasks when sending
and receiving a message. When you think and say, "I missed my train,"
your brain conjures up a series of meanings. When I hear you speak the words, I
have to retrieve these meanings, which evokes similar activities in my own
In the case of babies, they might not understand all the
words, but facial expressions, body language, and vocal cues help convey our
meaning. And eye contact may be the crucial signal that starts the process. Look here! I have a message for you. I want
The research is consistent with other studies of
In experiments conducted by Ruth Feldman and her colleagues,
mother-infant pairs communicating face-to-face experienced frequent episodes of
heart rhythm synchrony. In this case, the biggest predictor of heart
synchronization wasn't direct gaze, but simultaneous, happy vocalizations and
nonverbal signals of positive emotion (Feldman et al 2011).
And an experiment led by Sarah Waters used heart rhythms to
show that babies can "catch" their parents' stressed-out moods. The
researchers randomly assigned some mothers to attempt a stressful task --
public speaking -- and then reunited them with their infants. Within minutes of
being reunited, mother-infant pairs showed matching cardiac responses, with
babies mirroring the patterns of their stressed mothers (Waters et al 2014).
Taken together, these studies show us the power of eye
contact, body language, and emotional cues. As I note elsewhere, such nonverbal
signals help babies learn the meaning of words. But they also help children
forge even more fundamental skills: How to tune into another person. How to
understand his or her intentions. How to empathize, and predict what someone is likely
to do next.
When parents fail to provide timely cues -- because, for
example, they are struggling with clinical depression, or suffering from
anxiety -- there is less parent-child synchrony, and kids tend to have poorer
et al 2014).
So when we care for an infant, there is more at stake than
meeting the child's immediate physical needs. And talking to babies does more
than expose them to speech sounds. The
way we communicate matters. It paves the
way for deeper understanding -- for truly connecting to other people.
It's one more reason to treat our babies as conversation
partners, and to get ourselves the emotional support we need. When our own
mental health is good, we offer our babies more effective lessons in
More information about talking to babies
For more information on this topic, check out these articles:
In addition, see this article about reducing stress in babies, which discusses the ways we can communicate a message of calm and confidence to our infants.
References: Talking to babies with nonverbal cues
Feldman R, Magori-Cohen R, Galili G, Singer M, Louzoun Y.
2011. Mother and infant coordinate heart rhythms through episodes of
interaction synchrony. Infant Behav Dev.34(4):569-77.
Leclère C, Viaux S, Avril M, Achard C, Chetouani M,
Missonnier S, Cohen D. 2014. Why synchrony matters during mother-child
interactions: a systematic review. PLoS One. 2014 Dec 3;9(12):e113571.
Leong V, Byrne E, Clackson K, Georgieva S, Lam S, Wass S.
2017. Speaker gaze increases information coupling between infant and adult
brains. PNAS 114 (50): 13290-13295
Stephens GJ, Silbert LJ, Hasson U. 2010. Speaker-listener
neural coupling underlies successful communication. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 107(32):14425-30.
Waters SF, West TV, Mendes WB. 2014. Stress contagion: physiological
covariation between mothers and infants. Psychol Sci. 25(4):934-42.
Image credits for "Talking to babies":
Title image of baby touching father's face by HarshKR / flickr
Image of brain PET scan by Jens Langner / wikimedia commons
Image of woman and infant wearing electrode caps by Cambridge University
Image of baby eyeing mother over her shoulder by Lars Ploughmann / flickr
Content of "Talking to babies" last modified 1/2018