The brains of mothers and their babies sync up more easily when the mother is happy, a new study from Cambridge University has shown.
Researchers discovered that mothers’ and babies’ brains act together in a ‘mega-network’ where brainwaves fall in line, allowing for a greater connection and empathy.
But that level of connectivity varies according to the mother’s emotional state.
When mothers express more positive emotions their brain becomes much more strongly connected with their baby’s brain.
Scientists think that a greater connection may help the baby to learn more quickly and its brain to develop more fully. So if mothers are happy it is likely to improve child development.
“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,” said Dr Vicky Leong, of University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychology.
“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.”
The research, published in the journal NeuroImage, used a method called dual electroencephalograhy (EEG) to look at brain signals of seven pairs of mothers and babies while they were interacting with each other.
The study found that positive interaction, with lots of eye contact, enhanced the ability of mother and infant brains to operate as a single system, promoting efficient sharing and flow of information between mother and infant.
“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,” said Dr Leong.
“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.”
But conversely, the results also suggest that babies of depressed mothers show less evidence of learning because of a weakened neural connection between mother and infant.
“Mothers who experience a persistently low or negative mental state due to clinical depression tend to have less interaction with their baby,” added Dr Leong.
“Their speech is often flatter in tone, they make much less eye contact, and they are less likely to respond when their baby tries to get their attention.”
Emotional communication between parents and their children is crucial during early life, yet little is known about its neural underpinnings.
The new research is the first brain imaging study of two related individuals to investigate if and how babies’ interpersonal neural connectivity with their mothers is affected by the emotional quality of their social interaction.
As a social species, humans share emotional states with others. This work shows how emotions change the connection between two individuals at a neural level.
The researchers say that their findings apply to many other types of bonds, including between couples, close friends, and siblings, where each person is highly attuned to the other.
The strength of the effect is likely to depend on how well the two people know each other and the level of trust between them.