When adults look out at other people, we have what psychologists and philosophers call a “theory of mind”—that is, we think that the people around us have feelings, emotions and beliefs just as we do. And we somehow manage to read complex mental states in their sounds and movements.
But what do babies see when they look out at other people? They know so much less than we do. It’s not hard to imagine that, as we coo and mug for them, they only see strange bags of skin stuffed into clothes, with two restless dots at the top and a hole underneath that opens and closes.
Our sophisticated grown-up understanding of other people develops through a long process of learning and experience. But babies may have more of a head start than we imagine. A new study by Andrew Meltzoff and his colleagues at the University of Washington, published in January in the journal Developmental Science, finds that our connection to others starts very early.
Dr. Meltzoff has spent many years studying the way that babies imitate the expressions and actions of other people. Imitation suggests that babies do indeed connect their own internal feelings to the behavior of others. In the new study, the experimenters looked at how this ability is reflected in baby’s brains.
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