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Brainy Babies: ‘Invisible Bungee Cords’ Explain Early Learning

Flickr Photo/Evan Long
It's so natural to play patty cake or invite an infant to mimic you - but what's going on in their brains at the time?

Stick your tongue out at a newborn, and it will attempt to stick its tongue back at you. Wave your hand, and the baby may wave back. Behavioral psychologists have known for some time how babies love to imitate, but new research from the University of Washington and Temple University sheds light on the neural processes happening within the brain.

In other words, babies are brainy.

Researchers tested 70 children around 14 months old by putting a sort of electronic cap on their heads, known as an EEG cap, to detect brainwaves and then, simply, playing with them.

Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Science, said that by combining new techniques in neuroscience with developmental psychology, researchers are able to get a better idea what’s happening “under the hood.”

Meltzoff told The Record’s Marcie Sillman that his research shows how early neural connections are being made in the infant brain. Imitation, it would appear, is the sincerest form of learning.

Before they have language, imitation is one of the chief mechanisms for absorbing information from the parents, early day care providers and the culture around them. There’s always been a big puzzle in what neural systems support imitative learning – it’s a very dramatic and rapid form of learning in human beings.

With his colleagues at Temple University, Meltzoff discovered that babies seem to have a picture of their own body in their head – a schema that “allows them at a fundamental level to tie themselves to you and recognize the similarity between self and other.”

Essentially, tests showed that when a parent played patty-cake, the hand area of the baby’s brain would light up, like an invisible bungee cord as Meltzoff put it.

Besides learning movement, Meltzoff said the implications of their research include how babies learn about their culture and connect with other people. Their research is opening up new questions and possibilities in the field.

“We have known for some time that there is this body-to-body mapping: A baby is born social, is born able to make connections to others,” Metlzoff said. “Now we’re looking at the neuroscience of that.”

Produced for the Web by Kara McDermott.

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