Intracerebral synchronization between mothers and babies could improve children’s social skills

Many times we say we are “connected” with our parents, siblings, partners or friends. This feeling can be very strong, and although there is not a physical connection, but rather an emotional one, science tells us that this could be due to the fact that our brains synchronize with each other. Synchronization which is due to the coupling of the activity of neurons (nerve cells) of the interacting brains. And yes, surprisingly, it is our brains and not our hearts that are involved.

It is important to say that this conclusion has been reached thanks to the fact that more and more research is focused on studying how our “social brain” works, for example by studying people’s brain activity as they interact with others. Much of this research takes advantage of the fact that brain function is essentially electrical activity, which generates brain waves. These can be measured non-invasively by electroencephalogram (EEG).

EEG uses electrodes placed on the scalp to measure brain waves. A non-invasive but very powerful study, which measures the speed with which these waves appear, making it possible to compare brain activity in different conditions. For example, the brain activity of two people close and compare the results between them. In this way one could evaluate whether the brain waves follow (or not) similar patterns or the same rhythm to each other. In cases where brain waves with similar characteristics, such as their frequency, phase, and duration, are detected, interbrain synchronization is considered to exist.

“chemistry” between people

With this premise, it is now a fact that between two or more people who carry out an activity in common, such as listening to the same music, dancing, watching a film or, classic example, clapping, the brains of all subjects involved are synchronized . Establishing what we have hitherto called “sensation” or “chemistry” between people and which is actually the synchronized activity of their brains. Synchronization, which although it has been recorded between strangers, is usually much greater among people with sentimental ties, such as couples or family members.

Indeed, high brain synchronization has been linked to a high ability to anticipate what the other person will say or how the other person will act. In light of this, we can now understand what causes us to finish each other’s sentences, to match the pace at which they walk or dance, or to communicate without speaking. A behavioral synchronization that is a reflection of brain synchronization.

To achieve interbrain synchronization and for social interaction, training with our environment is essential. Numerous studies propose an essential role of intercerebral synchronization between parents and children, affirming it as the first approach (and “training”) to the development of children’s social skills. Positive parent-child synchronization has been associated with more effective and efficient self-regulation as well as the development of empathy and prosocial behaviors in young and even lifelong children. Most research has focused on brain synchronization between infants and their mothers and the influence of this interaction on the maturation of the infant’s social brain during the first years of life and, with it, on his ability to interact with his peers in the future. .

Interbrain synchronization between mothers and babies

In light of this, the research was recently published in the journal The progress of science, which demonstrates the importance of interbrain synchronization between mothers and children, as well as the effect of the mother’s presence (either physically or through a shirt with her smell) on increasing the child’s prosocial behavior. A study that tests the hypothesis that even in the physical absence of the mother, a shirt impregnated with her perfume can provoke a sensory signal that represents her in her absence and, with it, a response similar to that observed when the mother is absent was present during the interaction with a stranger.

To do this, the group of researchers, led by psychologist Ruth Feldman of Reichman University (Israel), harnessed the power of the EEG to measure and compare the degree of intercerebral interaction between mothers and babies, as well as between the newborn and a stranger . . At first, the researchers measured the degree of interaction between mothers and children during one interaction from the front and another from behind. They observed that brain synchronization was significantly higher when the mother and her child were facing each other, concluding that facial communication is the predominant mode of communication during social contact, essential for children’s brain maturation.

It is important to remember that the synchronization reported between mothers and babies did not occur in the same brain areas. This was observed between the right central area of ​​the mother’s brain and the right occipital-temporal area of ​​the infant’s brain, an area near the nape of the neck. Although further studies are needed to clarify the significance of electrical activity synchronization in these brain areas, it is known that in adults it is associated with emotion recognition, while in children, the activated region is related to basic life functions, such as nutrition, emotional processes, and basic positive and negative stimuli, such as sucking or crying.

On the other hand, the researchers compared the degree of interbrain synchronization achieved by the infant’s interaction with a strange woman. The women for the study were carefully selected. Women of similar age, with a child in the same age group and who were neighbors were chosen. Qualities expected in a potential alomadre (caretaker or surrogate mother). As expected, the interbrain synchronization between the child and the strange woman was significantly lower than that observed during the mother-child interaction.

Maternal presence and infant social skills

Subsequently, the interaction between the newborn and the strange woman was evaluated, but this time in the presence of a shirt impregnated with the mother’s smell. Surprisingly, the researchers recorded a significant improvement in the degree of interbrain synchronization between the boy and the strange woman, to such an extent that the synchronization reached levels similar to those obtained by interacting with one’s mother. On the other hand, the researchers noted that in the absence of the mother, maternal smell increased positive social cues in infants, such as visual attention, a sense of security, positive laughter and vocalizations, behaviors that allow infants to explore. their environment. socialize safely and connect neutrally with your group members.

Thus, the researchers demonstrate, on the one hand, the importance of maternal presence to improve the child’s social skills during brain development; and secondly, according to the researchers, body odors are the main sensory signal representing the mother in her absence.

Which makes sense, considering in the first place that in all mammalian species, during the first days of life, the sense of sight is not yet mature, and it is the sense of smell that allows us to distinguish the parents, from the sense of smell, to the inside the habitat. And second, maternal odors are primitive cues that trigger complex neural changes early in neurodevelopment that allow the infant’s brain to associate them with a sense of safety and survival. That’s why the infant’s brain focuses less on warning signs and more on improving social skills.

Although it is not yet known exactly how neural activity is synchronized, the establishment of synchronization as the neurophysiological basis of interpersonal relationships and the recognition of the importance of synchronization between parents and children, especially during infancy, could open the door to a new approach to the study of human relationships that would allow to understand and analyze very complex aspects in the field of psychology, sociology, psychiatry and even education. This could contribute to the understanding of disorders such as social anxiety, social phobia, lack of empathy and other disorders associated with a lack of social skills and thus to possible preventive or therapeutic mechanisms.


*This article comes from the agreement with the Interdisciplinary Center of Neurosciences of the University of Valparaíso.

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