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The Amazing Thing That Happens When You Look Baby in the Eye

by Angelica Lai

Photograph by Twenty20

You know that special feeling you get when your baby's eyes first meet yours? Turns out, in that heartwarming moment, there's a whole lot happening in your brains that we're just learning about.

It's already known that when a parent and infant interact, many aspects between the two sync up, such as their emotions and heart rate. A new study shows that babies can also synchronize their brainwaves with adults' brainwaves when the two of them make eye contact. (Talk about literally being on the same wavelength!)

Put very generally, brainwaves reflect what's happening when millions of neurons send signals and communicate with each other, which is the basis of our thoughts, emotions and behaviors.

Why is this important? With adults, communication is more successful when brainwaves are in sync. That's probably why so many things can go wrong and get misinterpreted when you text your partner versus having a conversation face to face. Researchers think that synchronizing adults' and babies' brainwaves can support the infants' communication and learning.

The study, published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, by Researchers at the University of Cambridge also found that babies vocalized (tried to communicate) more when they were holding a mutual gaze.

Researchers performed two experiments. In the first, which involved 17 infants, the babies watched videos of an adult (whose brainwave patterns were already recorded) as she sang nursery rhymes. In the first, the adult looked directly at the infant. In the second, there was no eye contact. In the third, the adult had her head turned away but her eyes still looked directly back at the infant. After using electroencephalography (EEG) on 17 infants to measure the patterns of their brain electrical activity and comparing it to the adult's, researchers found that their brainwaves were more synchronized to the adults' when their gazes met. Brainwaves were the most synchronized in the third video, probably because the eye contact seemed more deliberate and clued baby in more directly that the adult is trying to communicate.

In the second experiment, which involved 19 infants, they had a real adult singing to the baby and monitored both parties live. Not only were the infant's and adult's brainwaves more in sync when they made eye contact, but the baby also made more sounds while they were holding the adult's gaze, showing that eye contact is so intertwined with communication.

"We don’t know what it is, yet, that causes this synchronous brain activity. We’re certainly not claiming to have discovered telepathy!" Dr. Sam Wass, one of the study's authors, said in a press release. "The brain synchrony we were observing was at such high time-scales—of three to nine oscillations per second—that we still need to figure out how exactly eye gaze and vocalizations create it."

Don't worry if your baby is avoiding eye contact for his or her age or situation. While it can be an early sign of autism (the best way to know that is to have them tested), avoiding eye contact can also be a sign that baby is overstimulated or tired. Respect your baby's signals; hopefully soon, you can both see eye to eye.

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