Professor studies baby laughter

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(Host) A baby’s laughter may seem like it just comes naturally – but it’s not quite as simple as that. 

The infectious laugh of an infant tells us something about how babies develop psychologically and how they perceive the outside world. 

One Johnson State College professor who’s been researching why babies laugh says the results are surprising.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Baby laughter)

(Zind) It’s natural for parents to play with their children and Karissa McDonough of Waterbury Center is no exception. 

But in her case, there’s an added element.  She’s documenting what makes her baby daughter Eireann laugh as part of a study.  McDonough says its made her more  aware of changes in her daughter’s  behavior when it comes to play.

(McDonough) "I’ve really seen different things develop over time with her.  That sense of anticipation, a whole variety of things that make her laugh now versus when we first started – it was just purely physical and now we play games, peek a boo is really fun." 

(Zind)  The changes McDonough sees as a mother are something Doctor Gina Mireault has been finding in her research into what makes babies laugh.

Mireault is a professor of Behavior Sciences at Johnson State College.  The study she’s conducting involves Eireann McDonough and nearly 30 other Vermont babies.  It’s funded by the Vermont Genetics Network and when it concludes next year, Mireault hopes it will shed new light on infant behavior.

Mireault says the research has already yielded some interesting preliminary findings that challenge assumptions about psychological development in young children. 

She says until now it’s been thought that up to the age of 4 children don’t really understand that other people have minds separate from their own.  Mireault says her research indicates that that understanding actually comes at a much earlier age. 

For example older infants exhibit something called clowning behavior:  They might intentionally make a funny face to elicit a laugh from someone – proof that they are more aware than previously thought.   

(Mireault) "What these studies are showing is that babies are doing this much sooner, in the second part of the first year of life, so from 7 to 12 months, babies, for example, will offer a toy to their dad and when their dad goes to reach for it, they’ll pull it away.  That’s a kind of deception that the baby is exhibiting.  So I think that it is really short-changing our understanding to children to think that this kind of understanding of other people’s minds isn’t available to babies or to children until they’re 4 years old."

(Zind) Infants start laughing when they’re about three months old – and they take their cues from their parents.  When mom or dad laughs during play, baby knows that something funny is happening.

(Mother and child playing) "She’s giving him some great cues."

(Zind)  Mireault hopes her study will yield valuable information for scientists about infant development, but she says there are also lessons for parents about the importance of playing and laughing with their young babies.   

(Mireault) "These kinds of experiences are more than just fun, they’re really important for babies and they teach babies very early on that  relationships are satisfying, that they’re worth it, that other people are trustworthy and fun and that is really what draws them in to the social world."

That’s a lesson not lost on Karissa McDonough.

(McDonough) "I’ve tried to do everything to make her laugh and make her respond and I think we have a better interaction because of it."

(Baby laughter)

(Zind)  For VPR News, I’m Steve Zind.

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