Harry Harlow, in a famous study, demonstrated that baby rhesus monkeys deprived of their mother would prefer to cling to a wire mother covered in cosy cloth, than to a wire mother that provided milk. He concluded that a mother’s touch is more important than food. Around the same time (1950s), John Bowlby was a psychoanalyst at the Tavistock clinic and he noticed that human children deprived of motherly contact often go on to develop psychological problems. More recent research, using neuroscience and detailed images of the brain, has found that children with more tactile mothers tend to have more developed social brains.
Mothers and their children were videoed as they sat together on a couch and played with a Playmobil Farm. The mothers knew they were being watched but they didn’t know the aim of the study. 24 boys and 19 girls, with an average age of 5.5 years, took part in the study. The researchers took note of when the mothers touched the child or vice versa. During the next two weeks the researchers scanned the brains of the children.
They found that the children who were touched more by their mothers in the play session tended to have more resting activity in the social brain, especially the right superior temporal sulcus. Children who received more touch also had more connections between different functional nodes within their social brain.
This research is significant because previous research in this area has found that greater resting activity in a person’s social brain is linked with empathy. The researchers concluded that “one may speculate 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.”
Do you have a sociable toddler? Do you think there’s a link between frequent touch and how social they are?
This was a guest post by Dot Blakemore, a Chartered Psychologist, with many years of experience in child studies.