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Cheek-dancing: The dance of the mother and child

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Communication is a necessity for human interpersonal relations whether it be in the family or society. We (humans) use various means to communicate directly or indirectly -- such as communication through computers -- with each other.

In my fifth message, I touched on communication a bit, but I would like to explore this issue deeper today. Biological communication can be divided very broadly into two categories. One being social and the other being cultural. The social aspects of communication are manifested by such expressions as laughter and crying while the cultural mans of communication constitutes words, codes and rituals. A combination of social and cultural communication would be the spoken language and actions or behaviors (e.g. shaking hands, bowing).

Furthermore, if we describe communication as "words", we can see three large classifications: (1) phonetic language (i.e. spoken language), (2) body or action (behavioral) language (e.g. facial expressions, movements, rituals), and (3) symbolic language (e.g. words, codes, symbols, figures). In terms of phonetic and body/action language, the "place" where the communication is taking place becomes a major point in determining the context of the communication. In other words, the rhythm of the voice, pitch, intonation, and even clothing all build on each other to help the communication become meaningful and smooth.

Babies obviously cannot use phonetic language nor can they use symbolic language. Thus, until they are able to use these forms of language (about 6 months of age), they must rely on body/action language such as crying or laughter to communicate with their surroundings. However, there are some cases where the mother and child bond is so strong that their communication is also unbelievably in tune with each other. Why is this?

About twenty-five years ago, an article was presented in the United States which indicated that the baby moves his/her hands in tune with the mother's vocal rhythms.

Needless to say, I was surprised, and I must admit a little embarrassed that I hadn't realized this powerful communication of the baby, as a pediatrician. In addition, I was very eager to expand on this research, and since it was during my years at the University of Tokyo, I formed a team with some researchers in the Engineering Department and spent about a year researching this amazing topic.

We asked mothers to talk to their one day old babies while we videotaped this interaction from above. Later we analyzed the video frame by frame while we graphed the movement of the hand. We wanted to see if we would be able to see any relationship between the baby's hand movements and the mother's voice waves as manifested by a graph.

It turned out that our results were identical to the American article mentioned above and that the baby's hands began to wave a little after the mother (or adult) began speaking. Our research was acknowledged worldwide as documenting this very phenomenon technologically.

We call this phenomenon, "entertainment", and if we explain it technically, we may say that it is a nonlinear tuning phenomenon which is visible in many biological explanations. A typical example of this is jetlag. One is able to overcome jetlag (or tune oneself) by getting used to the sunlight rhythms of one country after being in another for a while. This is due to entrainment, of own biological rhythm of the starting place of the flight with the sunlight rhythms of the arriving place.

The entrainment seen in the communication of the mothers and babies was also apparent when another adult (in our case a pediatrician or nurse) also spoke to the baby. Furthermore, the baby also tunes in by waving his/her hand to his/her own voice and crying.

The baby is born with a brain that is able to tune in to vocal sounds through bodily actions. I believe this is the foundation that makes communication possible, transforming body/action communication to cultural communication of voice.

The newborn, from the moment of birth is able to utilize this program and react to the soft voice of the mother by moving some part of the body. It almost seems like the mother and baby are dancing with each other to a rhythm of their own. The mother and baby begin building their bond through this dance of theirs, making opportunity for communication, sharing various information with each other, and eventually the baby will begin to understand the words the mother is saying. This can also be recognized as the beginning of language development for the baby.

Hence, I have reviewed how biological communication means, phonetic and body/action rhythms, tune in to incorporate the social and cultural aspects of one's surroundings which make communication meaningful.
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