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Touch in Babies Provides a Foundation for Empathy

Three scientists sit before microphones in front of a blue AAAS backdrop
Andrew Meltzoff (left), Ruth Feldman and Minoru Asada take part in a news briefing Feb. 15 at the 2020 AAAS Annual Meeting in Seattle. | Adam D. Cohen/AAAS

Babies begin to relate to others through touch from their earliest days – connections that have implications for their health and their social development well beyond infancy, particularly their ability to empathize with others, according to several scientists.

“Very young babies can look out at other people’s bodies moving and can relate the same biological movement to their own felt movement,” which is a “bedrock” for social development, said Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington.

This connection between babies and their caregivers “provides the foundation for the capacity of empathy,” said Ruth Feldman, professor of developmental social neuroscience at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel. “The more they experience this synchrony, the more they are able to develop empathy later on.”

Meltzoff and Feldman shared results from their work at a Feb. 15 news briefing at the 2020 American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting in Seattle. They were joined at the presentation by Minoru Asada, professor at the Open and Transdisciplinary Research Institute at Osaka University, where he explores whether the sense of touch could serve as a basis for empathy in robots.

Meltzoff’s recent experiments have used a noninvasive technology called magnetoencephalography to look at the brain activity of 29-week-old babies. When a baby’s hand, for instance, is touched, imaging data shows that a particular region of the brain in the somatosensory cortex is activated, Meltzoff said.

Another experiment illuminates that this understanding extends past the baby’s own body – when the baby observes someone else’s hand being touched, that same region lights up in the baby’s brain.

“We think of that as a connection between self and other that is there very early in development,” said Meltzoff.

Feldman shared results from a longitudinal study that reveals the physiological and social effects of touch and connection that extend long past infancy.

It has been known for decades that separating a baby from its mother has detrimental effects. For premature babies who require incubation, a touch-based intervention known as “kangaroo care” is prescribed. In such cases, babies are placed skin-to-skin on their mother’s chest.

Tracking the same group, Feldman has previous shown that administering kangaroo care just one hour daily for 14 consecutive days has yielded long-lasting gains to the infants’ physiological support systems as they grow: better sleep, better autonomous functioning, milder stress response, and fewer markers of inflammation, she said.

Most recently, Feldman has investigated the “social brain” of the babies, now 20-year-olds. She found that empathic accuracy – the brain’s capacity to distinguish and respond differently to others’ specific emotions – was stronger among the adults who received kangaroo care as infants compared to those who were premature but did not receive kangaroo care. Feldman captured brain imaging data as the now-adult study participants observed others experiencing joy, sadness and distress; considered the precise emotions; and put themselves into the shoes of the person experiencing those feelings, Feldman said.

“This is a hopeful intervention,” said Feldman, who noted that kangaroo care is now a standard practice of care for preemies. “There is something about the provision of maternal bodily contact during that period of separation that sets the child to a lifetime of a different trajectory.”

[Associated image: courtesy Ruth Feldman]