New research, completed by Marcus Autism Center, a subsidiary of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Emory University School of Medicine and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, found when caregivers sing to infants, babies instinctively synchronize their gaze with the beat of the music by looking into their caregiver’s eyes. Results show that synchronization supports infant social learning and may also have implications for children with autism spectrum disorder.
“This study shows that synchronization shapes the social experience of infants, changing what they look at and what they see,” says Warren Jones, PhD, study co-principal investigator, Director of Research at Marcus Autism Center, and Nien Distinguished Chair in Autism at Emory University School of Medicine.
Dr. Jones, in collaboration with Miriam Lense, PhD, study co-principal investigator and Assistant Professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, wanted to understand the most basic elements of social interaction, part of a larger effort to study how social interaction and synchronization may be disrupted in children with autism.
Now, the researchers wanted to determine if the behavior of infants as young as two months of age, when babies first begin to engage in reciprocal social interaction, synchronizes with the behavior of their caregivers. To study this, the team made use of a form of infant-caregiver interaction found in all human cultures: singing to infants.
“Experimentally, infant-directed singing takes a lot of different social cues and makes those cues rhythmic, repeatable and predictable,” says Dr. Jones. “This is helpful because it gives us a tool to understand the way in which rhythmic behavior of a caregiver might synchronize the behavior of an infant.”
The researchers tested infants when they were two and six months old and used eye-tracking technology to measure the movements of infant’s eyes while they watched videos of caregivers singing.
Results showed that infants synchronized their gaze to caregivers’ eyes in time to the rhythm of singing. They were more likely to look at a caregiver’s eyes on the beat than between beats.
In addition, singing caregivers synchronized their facial expressions toward infants: on each beat, the singing caregivers spontaneously presented more wide-eyed and positive facial expressions, fewer neutral facial expressions, and were less likely to blink. Without conscious awareness, the simple act of singing changed caregiver behavior to be more positive and engaging on each beat, and that change in behavior was synchronized with changes in how infants looked at their caregivers.
When the researchers manipulated the timing of the beats so that the timing of each beat became less regular and less predictable, infants’ behavior also changed. They were less likely to increase their gaze toward the caregiver’s eyes.
“This study is important because it reveals a remarkable physical coupling between caregiver behavior and infant experience,” says Dr. Jones. “It shows us a very basic building block of social interaction, how early it emerges, and also suggests a potential vulnerability in autism, if synchronization in children with autism is reduced or disrupted.”
The study is part of a larger effort to investigate how synchronization may be disrupted in children with autism, with the goal of using music to support early intervention for improving social communication. Future work will test these effects in a randomized controlled trial to enhance behavioral intervention for kids with autism using music. The goal of that research is to test whether empirically validated behavioral treatment approaches in autism can be enhanced through the use of music.