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Body Maps Pave the Way for Connecting

Some of the University of Washington's Institute for Learning & Brain Science’s (I-LABS) latest discoveries lay the groundwork for an exciting path: understanding the role of touch in a baby’s life.

Think of how you tell a newborn baby you love him: you can say the words “I love you” but he can’t yet understand language. But our cuddles really show our babies that we love them and help them feel secure.

For babies and grown-ups alike, skin is the largest sense organ humans have. Understanding the role of touch in an infant’s life could be a powerful gateway to communication with infants before they learn to speak. Yet very little is known about how the baby brain processes touch.
Meltzoff and co-authors discovered last year that brains of 7-month-old infants light up in special ways when their hands and feet are gently touched. The brain measurements reveal a detailed body map in the cerebral cortex.

What does this have to do with how caregivers and babies bond?
Researchers believe that babies initially connect with people through their bodies. Showing that the baby’s body is coded in their brain provides crucial information about how they develop a primitive sense of “self.”

Meltzoff says that infant neural body maps provide a glimpse into the baby’s first recognition that other people are “like me.” That is, if my hand is the same as your hand, and my foot the same as your foot, maybe we have other similarities, too.

The infant body map sets the foundation for social-emotional development and connecting with others. And these studies may ultimately reveal underlying mechanisms when children have difficulty forming relationships with others, such as in autism spectrum disorders.


About the Author

This article was adapted from a longer piece by Molly McElroy, Ph.D., How does baby learn? in the March 2016 Columns alumni magazine. Molly is a neuroscientist and a mom to a toddler. She is the communications and marketing manager at I-LABS. Follow her on Twitter: @mwmcelroy.

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