Do Parental Hands Sculpt Children's Brains?

Theory of mind may depend on the right touch.

Posted Mar 12, 2018

Touch is ten times stronger than verbal or emotional contact, and it affects damn near everything we do. – Ashley Montagu

Not long ago, a team led by Annett Schirmer at the Max Planck Institute in Germany recruited nearly fifty five-year-olds and their mothers to participate in an experiment. First, they asked every mother-child duo to play together with some blocks as they would at home while Schirmer and her team watched.

The mothers did not know it, but the researchers were counting the number of times they touched their children. The average was about one touch a minute, with some “high-touch” mothers touching more frequently and “low-touch” moms touching less or not at all.

Two weeks later, the researchers asked the kids to rest in an fMRI scanner and watch a picture of a lava lamp.

Why put kids through this? Schirmer was curious about what each child’s brain would look like in the resting default mode—or mind-wandering state—when they weren’t engaged in a task. Would the regions linked with social cognition be active? If they were in default mode, that would suggest that the child’s social brain was strong or well developed, the scientists thought, especially in the “theory of mind,” which is the ability to understand that another person’s beliefs, desires, perspectives, and values are different from one’s own. Children with a well-developed theory of mind are better at predicting how others will react to them or to a situation.

 So, what’s your prediction? Would the kids of high-touch moms show more activation of the social brain, even at times of rest, than the kids of low-touch moms?

CCO/Creative Commons
Source: CCO/Creative Commons

If you guessed yes, you’re right. The scans revealed that the more a mother had touched her child during the play observation—a “thin slice” of their relationship—the more overlap there was between that child’s default mode network and his or her social brain network. This included a circuit between the prefrontal cortex and the empathy-processing insula that didn’t exist in low-touched kids.

Schirmer and her colleagues are careful to point out that this is correlation, not causation. Yet “one may speculate,” they wrote in the study, “that children with more touch more readily engage the mentalizing component of the ‘social brain’ and that, perhaps, their interest in others’ mental states is greater than that of children with less touch.”

One more thing about the prefrontal cortex and insula: they continue to develop through adolescence. It’s not too late, right?

Excerpted from Wits Guts Grit: All-Natural Biohacks for Smart, Resilient Kids