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UW Study: Babies Show Beginning Signs Of Empathy As Early As 7 Months

Danny Alpert
No Small Matter via University of Washington
A 7-month-old sits in the Magnetoencephalography machine at the UW Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences

Babies are aware of what’s happening to others far earlier than you might think. That’s what University of Washington scientists found when they studied how the sense of touch is reflected in a baby’s brain. University of Washington Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences Co-Director and psychology professor Andrew Meltzoff says with new brain imaging techniques, where a baby sits under a Magnetoencephalography machine, it really is possible to get inside a baby’s head.

“This allows us to see what part of the brain lights up when you touch their hand or touch their foot, which they enjoy so much,” Meltzoff said. 

Remarkably, he says, researchers found that same part of the brain lit up when the babies watched an adult’s foot or hand being touched. He says it’s evidence that babies as young as 7 months old figure out something vital to human connection.

“I am like you and you are like me, and that is a very important social insight to babies, the correspondence between self and other,” Meltzoff said.

He says it’s the sense of someone else being like you that leads to empathy for others. He says future research could focus on even younger infants.

The findings of the UW study are published in Developmental Science.

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.