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Babies learn social cues faster when neural activity syncs with mom

A new study from the Cognitive Neuroscience Society (CNS) has revealed that the brain waves of babies literally sync with their moms as they are learning from them. The researchers found that the more this neural activity is synchronized, the faster an infant will learn in the social environment.

“Despite the fact that this is such a powerful learning mechanism, surprisingly little is known about how the human brain performs social learning,” said Victoria Leong of the University of Cambridge. “When we connect neurally with others, we are opening ourselves to receiving information and influence from others.”

A collection of research will be presented at this year’s CNS meeting by cognitive neuroscientists who are learning more about the social brain by finding new ways to study it.

“We’re this massively social species and yet the field of neuroscience has focused on the brain in isolation,” said Thalia Wheatley of Dartmouth College. “There’s this huge gap in knowledge about how our brains work in concert with other minds.”

Leong’s team investigated how a mother’s emotional response toward new toys affected the baby’s interaction with the toys. The infants and mothers were wearing wireless EEG technology as the babies watched their moms react to various objects.

The mothers would either show a positive emotion about an object by smiling and saying “I like this,” or would frown and say “I don’t like this.” Next, the babies selected which object to play with, while the researchers analyzed whether the level of “neural synchrony” between the mother and infant predicted how the infant would respond to the toys.

“We found that stronger neural synchrony predicted a higher likelihood of social learning by the infant,” said Leong.

The team noted that social signals such as eye contact were associated with increased synchronization and improved social learning. According to Leong, however, there is still much work to be done to identity exactly what leads to the neural synchrony.

The study findings produced a clear message about mother-infant bonding. “There is no substitute for being physically present and in the moment to connect with an infant.”

The research will be presented at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society 26th Annual Meeting in San Francisco this week.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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