How an Infant’s Brain Decodes Social Behavior

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Infants’ brains can understand what they are observing and thus can copy other people’s action, finds a study providing evidence that directly links neural responses from the motor system to overt social behavior in infants.

Babies understand what they are observing. There is a direct connection between observing others, understanding what others are doing, and learning how to act — abilities which are often disrupted in developmental disabilities, including autism, the researchers said.

Like adults, infants show this response when acting themselves and when watching others’ actions, suggesting that the motor system of babies may play a role in the perception of others’ actions, the researchers pointed out. “Our research provides initial evidence that motor system recruitment is contingently linked to infants’ social interactive behavior,” said lead author Courtney Filippi, doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago. The findings showed that recruiting the motor system during action encoding predicts infants’ subsequent social interactive behavior.

“This understanding on the part of a baby involves not just seeing the other person’s action, but also involves the baby’s own motor system, which is recruited when he or she chooses the same toy,” said Helen Tager-Flusberg, professor at Boston University.

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, showed that by the middle of their first year of life, babies begin to understand that people act intentionally.

“Here we looked at the development of social cognition, social behavior, and the motor system, all of which are critical for human development and are often disrupted in developmental disabilities, including autism,” explained co-author Amanda Woodward, professor at the Chicago University.

About the Author

Vimala McClure

I brought the art of infant massage to the Western world after learning about it in India in 1973. After years of research and having my first baby, I developed a curriculum to teach parents. I wrote the classic INFANT MASSAGE, A HANDBOOK FOR LOVING PARENTS (Penguin/Random House), first published in 1979, revised and updated several times since. I began training instructors, then training experienced instructors to be international trainers. I then founded the nonprofit IAIM, now the “Gold Standard” for infant massage information, instruction, and training worldwide.

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IAIM MISSION: The purpose of the International Association of Infant Massage is to promote nurturing touch and communication through training, education and research so that parents, caregivers and children are loved, valued and respected throughout the world community.