A baby’s first year of life is all take and very little give. “Change my nappy!” “Feed me!” “Me! Me! Me!”
We all start out as very demanding, seemingly thankless creatures. But collectively we make up one of the most social species on Earth. As we develop, we all acquire the abilities needed to participate in a give-and-take society.
Young children start helping their parents – and other adults – soon after their first birthday. If an adult drops something – say a clothes peg when trying to hang up the washing – the chubby fingers of an observant toddler could come to the adult’s aid.
The desire to help probably stems from a burgeoning sense of sympathy towards another human being. But scientists are still trying to figure out what processes are occurring in our brains to explain helping behaviour, especially in young kids.
In a study published this week in PLoS ONE, Ben Kenward and Gustaf Gredebäck from Uppsala University in Sweden have ruled out one of the hottest contenders for the neural basis of helping: mirror neurons.
When we sit and have coffee with a friend, each time our friend raises a cake-laden fork to their mouth, a subset of neurons in our own brain mirrors our friend’s actions. Even though we aren’t lifting the cake to our mouth, mirror neurons in our brain are flickering on as though we are.
The presence of neurons in our brain that fire in a pattern that mimics what another person is doing could explain our innate ability to empathise with others.
What the duo from Sweden wondered was this: how can you mirror the actions of a ball? Or a stuffed egg? These objects clearly don’t have the same body as a human – no legs or arms or head. Do you need to directly match yourself physically to an object – or person – in order to empathise with it?
To find out whether direct matching is a prerequisite for helping behaviour, the researchers enlisted 60 infants who were 17 months old. They constructed a puppet show of sorts featuring two distinctly non-human protagonists: a yellow stuffed egg with eyes, and a pink stuffed ball, also with eyes.
The set-up goes like this. On the stage, the pink ball sits comfortably on a little pink square on the right-hand side of a table. The yellow egg starts on the left hand side of the table. A yellow landing square just next to the pink ball marks the presumed goal for the yellow egg. A barrier made from three blocks separates the left and right sides of the table. [Video here].
As each baby watches on, a researcher hidden from view directs a short theatrical play by moving the yellow egg using a magnet under the table. The yellow egg approaches the barrier, moves back and forth along the barrier, and then proceeds to adopt a ramming approach, repeatedly reversing and then crashing into the central block, to try to break through the barrier. After witnessing this display, infants are brought within arms’ reach of the table, and given the chance to help the yellow egg by picking it up and placing it on the other side of the barrier.
A similar play, showing a crazy yellow egg ramming a block serves as the ‘control’ condition. However, in this play, there is only one block, the central block. Seeing as the yellow egg isn’t being prevented from reaching the opposite side of the table, it doesn’t look as though it needs any help.
The researchers found that infants were more likely to help in the ‘experimental’ play, where there was a clear barrier preventing the path of the yellow egg. Forty percent of the infants empathised with the frustrated yellow egg and helped it to the other side of the barrier in the ‘experimental’ play, whereas only 23% did so in the ‘control’ play.
The fact that the protagonist in the play was a stuffed yellow egg implied that babies don’t need to match themselves with a human-like object in order to feel the desire to offer assistance. This suggests that direct matching might not be a requirement of the mirror system and its ability to induce empathy. More general mechanisms that don’t rely on ‘like me’ assessments are probably involved in the development of our social behaviours.
So even if you are just a squishy egg with eyes, you’ve got a good chance of some assistance if there’s a toddler in the vicinity.
Reference: Kenward B, Gredebäck G (2013). Infants Help a Non-Human Agent PLoS ONE DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0075130