What’s going on in the brain when your eyes meet with someone across a crowded room?

As an adult, eye contact with someone else leads to a connection. Your brainwaves are thrown out from you and go and come back through the other person’s eyes. They harmonise and are in attunement; something clicks; you are in synchrony.  However, some people find it hard to make eye-contact, and there are various cultural situations when it might be considered inappropriate to look directly into another person’s eyes.

In a normal pregnancy, the amygdala complex in the right hemisphere of the baby’s brain will become structurally mature by the eighth month. The neonate is ready for birth and once born can respond to the novel situation of the mother’s face, eyes, smell and touch (see WATCh? Research Summary, Schore 2017). From birth, babies will have the ability to observe things around them and to look into their mothers’ eyes. Mothers are primed and usually able to give attuned care to their babies and develop an attachment bond with them.

The rate of brain development of the baby in the womb can be slowed down by environmental factors, such as high levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) or endocrine inhibitor toxins (pesticides, toxins or drugs) which prevent brain connections being made. A baby may have inherited altered genes, epigenetically modified genes, from when a mother, father or even grandparent had early life stress. All of these are possible factors which might reduce the readiness of the baby to recognise faces in early infancy. In boys, compared to girls, the amygdala is usually more sensitive to any of these negative effects, because testosterone plays an important part in the number of receptors in the right-side amygdala.

However, while the baby may be ready to connect, the mother may not be emotionally available or able to spend one-to-one time with her baby for a variety of reasons, illness after the birth, for instance. Potentially this can have a negative effect on the baby, which is why we need to strongly advocate universal support for mother and baby in the very early days, for example from Community Midwife or Health Visitor, as well as encourage the support of dads, friends and family.

Why is synchronising with someone else’s brainwaves important or vital? It is the basis of love and relationships; it is the start of partnerships, stable relationships and strong families. By spending time gazing into her baby’s eyes and responding to her cues in a send-and-return fashion, a mother is passing on to her baby the ability to attune brainwaves, and to learn empathy. If she cannot, because of her own poor perinatal health, post-natal depression, or her own poor early relationships, the baby is potentially at risk.  With early intervention from, for example, a specialised parent-infant relationship team or a peer support programme, the long-term risk of harm can be avoided.

Research in Israel, comparing the attunement of mothers with their children, and how that is affected by the stress of living in an environment of war, shows that a mother’s higher order gamma -empathic brainwaves are dampened by stress (see WATCh? Research Summary, Levy et al,  2019). There was a direct negative relationship between degree of war experience and lack of empathy. Living in a neighbourhood of greater terror and higher risk of death was related to a much greater reduction in empathy-gamma waves. The authors of this paper followed families over several years, and found that the 10-14 year-olds of severely war-stressed mothers had reduced empathy and attunement with their peers, possibly because of their mothers having too much to cope with, in trying to shield the children from the effects of war. Due to living with war and conflict, mothers understandably were less able to provide the children with empathy, and the babies’ brains had less time to develop the capacity of attunement and synchrony. Based on their research findings, the authors of this research, Levy et al, recommend that support must be given to the mothers living with serious stress, in order to prevent the negative effects on babies, and later on in their adolescent children, in order to improve each individual adolescent’s pro-social abilities and the quality of their relationships.

Although mothers and babies in the UK are not in a ‘war zone’, pregnant mothers, living in poverty, inadequate housing, or suffering domestic violence, are following the same path and their babies are at risk of harm. How can we prevent our children being exposed to the war of homelessness, food poverty or domestic violence? We urgently need to address this to prevent the children having their empathy “dampened”, impacting on harmonious family relationships, difficulties in forming long-term adult partnerships later in life and other negative consequences.