Interview with Dr Caspar Addyman, Lecturer in Psychology at Goldsmith University and founder of the Baby Laughter Project.
There is a blue-haired neuroscientist out there whose constant preoccupation is to make babies laugh. You might have read about him on The Independent or heard the song he developed in collaboration with Lauren Stewart on YouTube in the framework of the Baby Laughter Project (if you haven't go ahead and have a laugh!)
Dr Caspar Addyman was so kind as to share an early morning Skype session with us to answer all our questions. He really does show his commitment to bring science to people! We are truly thankful for sharing with us the amazing insights he has been gaining in his InfantLab.
Babybrains: Why is laughing important?
Dr C. Addyman: Laughing is a means of communication and connection between the baby and her carers. We are used to taking crying seriously. We know that is signifies that something is wrong. We use that cue to change our behaviour and try to make things right. But we don't always do the same with laughter. When a child smiles or laughs, it means that something is right. It is true that we don't need to immediately change our behaviour as a consequence of this, but we can notice what is "right" and use it as a resource in our relationship with our baby. Also, babies use laughter to draw us in, to engage in an interaction with us well before other aspect of conversation become available.
Babybrains: What happens in the brain when a baby laughs?
Dr C. Addyman: We don't know. In adults, laughter is connected with activity in the limbic system, in particular in the amygdala. In terms of physiology, hormones are released that makes us more alert. However, it is very difficult to investigate this in babies. We expect their heart rate to increase, we expect increases in cortisol levels and we expect these to be linked with increased alertness. I have been thinking of a study for a while now in which we would tickle babies and observe how physiological measures such as salivary cortisol, heart rate and skin conductance change over time. I am working on getting the funding to actually carry this out.
Babybrains: What is your favourite finding from your own research?
Dr C. Addyman: It has to be that the best way to make babies laugh is to take them seriously. This means that you have to engage with the child, find out about her favourite timings and about what her interests are, right at that moment. You need to know what she is paying attention to right now and why. When you notice this and let her lead the interaction then her laugh will come much easier.
Babybrains: What is the one thing that no parent should ignore about their child's brain development?
Dr C. Addyman: Attachment. This is an old idea going back to studies by John Bolwby (1907-1990) and Mary Ainsworth (1913-1999). Coming from a therapeutic perspective, they emphasized the importance of stable and secure attachment between the baby and the mother to give the baby a secure base to explore the world. Interestingly, recent research on child brain development comes to the same conclusion. In particular, studies by Ruth Feldman and her team have highlighted the important role of the hormone called oxytocin to the mother-infant bonding process. Over the last 15 years, Feldman's research has shown that during bonding, the physiological and social system of one partner (e.g., the mother), synchronise with the physiological and social system of the other partner (e.g., the baby). Good oxytocin-mediated bonding equips the child with positive emotional-regulation tools that are otherwise not available. In other words, for the purpose of long-term emotional regulation, having to "self-soothe" as a baby is not half as good as being soothed. I highly recommend viewing the following video, where Ruth Feldman gives a good overview of her research.
Babybrains: You talked about mothers. What about fathers and other carers?
Dr C. Addyman: The mechanisms of attachment in mothers and fathers are physiologically different. In the above video, minute 6, you can see access some very interesting data on how differently mothers and fathers are aroused during their interaction with the baby. Mothers show a slower rhythm, with peaks of positive arousal when she and the child make eye contact. Fathers show a faster arousal rhythm, with peaks that happen at random. Feldman calls this the rhythm of safety vs. the rhythm of excitement.
Babybrains: What is your favourite method?
Dr C. Addyman: I love eye-tracking for studying infant learning, but it does not work so well when studying something as spontaneous and social as laughter. For that, we need observational studies where we can look at the real mother-child interaction.
Babybrains: Which books do you recommend to parents?
If you are now convinced by the importance of laughter in your child's life and would like ideas about where to start, do not hesitate to get in touch: the Babybrains® app is almost ready to launch and it includes laughing exercises for you and your baby too (Week 17, for instance). We will be happy to put you on our "special pioneer list.”
But now... go on and do some serious stuff: have a laugh with your kid!