CAMBRIDGE, England — A mother and her child share a very special connection, that much is plain to see. However, you may be surprised by just how much a woman can link up with her child. According to researchers from the University of Cambridge, a mother and baby’s brains can actually form a mega network of synchronized brain waves as they interact with each other. But, there’s a catch: mother-child brain wave connectivity depends heavily on mom’s emotional state. Only when a mother is displaying particularly positive emotions does her mind reach maximum connectivity with her child’s brain.
Moreover, researchers suggest that extra layer of connection may help the baby learn more efficiently and better develop his or her own mind.
To reach their findings, researchers utilized a method known as dual electroencephalograhy (EEG) to observe the brain signals of both mother and child as they interacted. They immediately noted that moms and babies naturally synchronize brain waves when directly dealing with one another, a phenomenon referred to as interpersonal neural connectivity. More specifically, the two sets of brain waves link up within the frequency of 6-9 hertz, commonly called the infant alpha range.
Via a complex mathematical form of network analysis, the research team were able to observe both the quality and structure of a mother and her baby’s interpersonal neural connectivity. Essentially, this allowed them to see how information was flowing within each of their separate brains, and how the two brains were simultaneously operating in cooperation as a network of sorts.
Now, most of the time mother and child interact in a positive emotional state, and as such, their minds are very connected. These interactions, often characterized by steady eye contact, make it much easier for mother and baby to work as a single neural system. This, in turn, increases sharing and flow of information between the two.
“From our previous work, we know that when the neural connection between mothers and babies is strong, babies are more receptive and ready to learn from their mothers,” says study leader Dr. Vicky Leong, of the University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychology, in a release. “At this stage of life, the baby brain has the ability to change significantly, and these changes are driven by the baby’s experiences. By using a positive emotional tone during social interactions, parents can connect better with their infants, and stimulate development of their baby’s mental capacity.”
Furthermore, the research findings also suggest that babies born to more depressed mothers have a harder time learning new information due to a weakened neural connection with their mom. Overall, new mothers dealing with persistent depressive symptoms tend to interact less with their child. In many instances, depressed mothers will take a flatter tone with their baby, avoid eye contact, and are less likely to respond in general to their baby’s cries for attention.
“Our emotions literally change the way that our brains share information with others – positive emotions help us to communicate in a much more efficient way,” Dr. Leong adds. “Depression can have a powerfully negative effect on a parent’s ability to establish connections with their baby. All the social cues that normally foster connection are less readily available to the child, so the child doesn’t receive the optimal emotional input it needs to thrive.”
While it’s hardly new information that it’s important for young children to interact with their mother, not much was known about the neurological basis for such behavior. This was the first ever study to use brain imaging in order to observe how a baby’s neural connection with their mother is influenced by the emotional quality of their interactions. Additionally, the research team believe their findings may not only apply to mother-baby interactions, but many other tight-knit bonds as well, such as romantic partners, close friends, and siblings.
The study is published in the scientific journal NeuroImage.