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The association of temperament and maternal empathy with individual differences in infants’ neural responses to emotional body expressions

  • Purva Rajhans (a1), Manuela Missana (a1), Kathleen M. Krol (a1) and Tobias Grossmann (a1) (a2)

Abstract

We examined the role of infant temperament and maternal dispositional empathy in the neural processing of happy and fearful emotional body expressions in 8-month-old infants by measuring event-related brain potentials. Our results revealed that infants’ tendency to approach novel objects and people was positively correlated with the neural sensitivity (attention allocation) to fearful expressions, while infant fearfulness was negatively correlated to the neural sensitivity to fearful expressions. Maternal empathic concern was associated with infants’ neural discrimination between happy and fearful expression, with infants of more empathetically concerned mothers showing greater neural sensitivity (attention allocation) to fearful compared to happy expressions. It is critical that our results also revealed that individual differences in the sensitivity to emotional information are explained by an interaction between infant temperament and maternal empathic concern. Specifically, maternal empathy appears to impact infants’ neural responses to emotional body expressions, depending on infant fearfulness. These findings support the notion that the way in which infants respond to emotional signals in the environment is fundamentally linked to their temperament and maternal empathic traits. This adds an early developmental neuroscience dimension to existing accounts of social–emotional functioning, suggesting a complex and integrative picture of why and how infants’ emotional sensitivity varies.

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Corresponding author

Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Purva Rajhans, Early Social Development Group, Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Stephanstrasse 1a, Leipzig 04103, Germany. E-mail: rajhans@cbs.mpg.de.

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