Scientists have discovered that making eye contact with babies synchs their brainwaves with adults and could help them to learn and communicate more easily. Researchers already knew that when parents interact with their children their emotions and heart rate synchronize but they have never tested it with the brain until now.

In a study of babies and their mothers, scientists at the University of Cambridge found that when the parent was gazing at their child their brainwaves aligned and the baby made more effort to try and communicate.

Previous studies have shown that when students are interested in a subject at school their brainwaves synch with their classmates, and their learning improves. Likewise when two adults talk to each other, communication is more successful if their brainwaves match.

Dr Victoria Leong, lead author on the study said. “When the adult and infant are looking at each other, they are signaling their availability and intention to communicate with each other. We found that both adult and infant brains respond to a gaze signal by becoming more in sync with their partner. This mechanism could prepare parents and babies to communicate, by synchronizing when to speak and when to listen, which would also make learning more effective.”

Brainwaves reflect the activity of millions of neurons and are involved in information transfer between brain regions.

The team examined the brain patterns of 36 infants using electroencephalography (EEG), which measures electrical activity via electrodes in a skull cap. They compared the infants’ brain activity to that of the adult who was singing nursery rhymes to the infant.

Researchers found that infants’ brainwaves were more synchronized to the adults’ when the adult’s gaze met theirs and the babies also made more vocalizations when in synch.

Dr Sam Wass, last author on the study, said, “We don’t know what it is, yet, that causes this synchronous brain activity. We’re certainly not claiming to have discovered telepathy! In this study, we were looking at whether infants can synchronize their brains to someone else, just as adults can. And we were also trying to figure out what gives rise to the synchrony.

“Our findings suggested eye gaze and vocalizations may both, somehow, play a role. But 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.”

The research was published in the journal PNAS.