In their earliest months and years, children’s interactions with familiar, sensitive, and stimulating caregivers fuel their social, emotional and intellectual growth, with enduring effects on their future development, learning, and academic capacities. Smiles, funny faces, the voices of the ones who love them are the stuff that count for the blossoming infant. The process of bonding, or attunement, is the first order or business, as parents and babies begin their duet. Through delicate and nuanced choreography, infants and mothers forge a relationship, with both partners building what psychologist Erik Erikson called “basic trust, “ a sense of security and optimism that nurtures children’s desire to engage in the world and approach challenging tasks with persistence and pleasure.
All of the above is the gospel for early care and education, with an evidence base bolstered by neuroscience. So I’ve got a new obsession, which I just can’t shake: As we move deeper into this brave, new world of technology, with connection mediated by screens, what does this mean for human development? I’ve been finding kindred souls, including you, Jamey Wetmore, at Arizona State University, and, most recently, Barbara L. Fredrickson, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
As I was toggling back and forth between my iPhone (a screen that’s prime, alas, in my tech-infused life) and the paper version of the New York Times, I stumbled upon Fredrickson, whose research, soon to be published in Psychological Science, confirmed my worst fears. Yes, digital life is convenient, she admits, but we tend to focus less on its costs. In a longitudinal experiment on the effects of learning skills for cultivating interpersonal relationships, she and her colleagues found that those who participated in a workshop that nurtured more warmth and tenderness toward themselves and others altered a part of their cardiovascular system known as vagal tone. Apparently, like the brain, this part of human anatomy is plastic, too, and can be changed by our social habits. And when one’s vagal tone is higher, the capacity for connection and empathy increases.
Here’s the kicker: like synapses in the brain, the “heart’s capacity for friendship also obeys the biological law of “use it or lose it,” writes Fredrickson. When we don’t exercise our ability to connect face-to-face, we lose some of that capacity:
New parents may need to worry less about genetic testing and more about how their own actions—like texting while breast-feeding or otherwise paying more attention to their phone than their child—leave life-limiting fingerprints on their and their children’s gene expression.
When you share a smile or laugh with someone face to face, a discernible synchrony emerges between you, as your gestures and biochemistries…come to mirror each other. It’s micro-moments like these, in which a wave of good feeling rolls through two brains and bodies at once, that build your capacity to empathize as well as to improve your health.
And, I would add, to learn.
We’re unquestionably messing with a sacred and influential developmental process here. How can we embrace the new, yet protect our youngest digital citizens?