Proximity and touch are associated with neural but not physiological synchrony in naturalistic mother-infant interactions
- Mother-infant neural and physiological synchrony arise during mutual engagement.
- Behavioral correlates of neural and physiological synchrony diverge.
- Interpersonal neural synchrony is related to proximity and affective touch.
- Interpersonal physiological synchrony is related to infant negative affect.
Caregiver touch plays a vital role in infants’ growth and development, but its role as a communicative signal in human parent-infant interactions is surprisingly poorly understood. Here, we assessed whether touch and proximity in caregiver-infant dyads are related to neural and physiological synchrony. We simultaneously measured brain activity and respiratory sinus arrhythmia of 4–6-month-old infants and their mothers (N=69 dyads) in distal and proximal joint watching conditions as well as in an interactive face-to-face condition. Neural synchrony was higher during the proximal than during the distal joint watching conditions, and even higher during the face-to-face interaction. Physiological synchrony was highest during the face-to-face interaction and lower in both joint watching conditions, irrespective of proximity. Maternal affectionate touch during the face-to-face interaction was positively related to neural but not physiological synchrony. This is the first evidence that touch mediates mutual attunement of brain activities, but not cardio-respiratory rhythms in caregiver-infant dyads during naturalistic interactions. Our results also suggest that neural synchrony serves as a biological pathway of how social touch plays into infant development and how this pathway could be utilized to support infant learning and social bonding.
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