TOP > About Child Science > Kodomogaku Kotohazime (1998-2000) > Eye to Eye Contact: The power of eye contact in the mother-child interaction process


Eye to Eye Contact: The power of eye contact in the mother-child interaction process

I have mentioned in a previous message, that touch, or "skinship" is not the only sensation critical in the mother-child interaction process. In today's message I would like to expand on this, and discuss the visual sensation (vision) of humans which is also very important in this delicate process.

The mother-child interaction based on vision is referred to as, "eye-to-eye contact". I would also like to phrase it as the "communion of eyes" as it seems quite appropriate in this intimate exchange between the mother and the child.

Even in the newborn baby, vision is already present and the baby is able to recognize patterns within a thirty centimeter range at a fairly high rate of accuracy. This range (thirty centimeters) is also the approximate distance from eye to eye when the mother holds her baby in her arms.

Pathological data also has proven the child is able to see at birth. The retina of a newborn baby -- essential in sensing light -- has been proven to be about as developed as that of an adult. Although there are a few very sensitive parts of the newborn's eye that has yet to be developed (e.g. the macula lutea), in general, it has been found to be more developed than we had ever imagined. This is parallel to the brain's development, as the occipital lobe is more developed at birth than the other parts of the brain.

When the mother holds her newborn baby for the first time, she usually focuses on her new baby's eyes. In most cases, the eyelids are slightly swollen so many times you hear the mother calling her baby's name and asking her baby to open his/her eyes. In time, the baby opens his/her eyes and the mother will peer into his/her small round eyes and be filled with a joyous sensation only she can describe. This initial eye to eye contact is somewhat like an initiation for the mother reassuring her that she has indeed become a mother to her child.

Inside the human brain, it is said that there are a cluster of nerve cells that can almost be named the "face cells". To be very simplistic, it seems as though when one looks at a face of another, these cluster of cells become very excited. It may be that in the long process of evolution, these cells were developed in order for us to be able to recognize and interpret the various facial expressions present in the human race. Facial expressions not only depict feelings of a person, such as pain, sorrow and worry, but also add meaning to words and allow for various emotional interpretations of the spoken language. Thus, one is able to "speak" through one's face as much as through one's mouth. In this sense, the eyes play a very critical role in relaying information to the other person, by changing shape, size, brightness and focus.

Naturally, when looking at another person's face, people most often focus on the eyes. In general, when looking at an object, the eyes scan the whole image that is in visual range, then the eyes pick a target on which to focus, gathers information on that target, processes that information in the brain, and finally recognizes the shape or meaning of the target.

When you are looking at an object, the eyes scan and stop on a certain point of the object. It is called saccade. This word originates from the horseriding term, which is used when one pulls on the horse's reins to stop the horse. Of course, saccadic movement is a natural movement where, although the brain is "looking at an object", the eyes make jumps from one fixed point to another and scanning the object. This movement is most noticeable in reading.

In the infant, we are able to see the saccadic movement at about one month after birth. At this time, if one follows the movements of the baby's eyes, s/he is able to see the saccadic movement focusing on the mother's eyes.

It is unclear why the movement is focused on the eyes. We can only deduce that because the infant also focuses on other parts of the face that stand out, such as the mother's hairline and lips, we shall say that the infant focuses on the eyes because they are also an outstanding feature of the face. However, I believe there is another factor involved which is that the eyes are simply very attractive and comforting for the baby.

Of course, because the mother is an adult, the saccade "program" is working, and in full swing. When the mother holds her baby and is face to face with him/her, she is allowing the baby to feel reassured and feel her affection for him/her. This position, not only is a very natural way for the mother to hold her baby and to communicate with him/her, but also symbolizes the mother-child interaction pattern. This, I believe, is a very beautiful sight to see.
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