New book explores origins of social brain

TheInfantMindBkYork psychology Professor Maria Legerstee, along with two colleagues, has co-edited a newly published book that sheds light on the social brain of the infant.

The Infant Mind: Origins of the Social Brain (Guilford Press) features 14 world-renowned contributors who explore the transactions among genes, the brain and the environment in the earliest years of life. It integrates cutting-edge research from multiple disciplines, and provides a dynamic and holistic picture of the developing infant mind.

In addition to Legerstee, The Infant Mind is edited by University of Toronto Professor David Haley and Marc Bornstein, senior investigator at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Bethesda Maryland.

The contributors probe the neural correlates of core sensory, perceptual, cognitive, emotional and social capacities. They highlight the importance of early relationships, presenting compelling findings on how parent-infant interactions influence neural processing and brain maturation. Innovative research methods are discussed, MariaLegersteeincluding applications of behavioral, hormonal, genetic and brain imaging technologies.

Maria Legerstee

Legerstee says this particular book was partly inspired by a critique she received after publishing, Infants Sense of People: Precursors to a Theory of Mind (Cambridge Press, 2005), which was an account of her own research. It provided detailed descriptions of the infants’ developing behavioral repertoire during the first year of life, attesting to the fact that infants demonstrated an awareness of the mind of others with their meaningful gazing at their parents’ faces, to exchanging emotions with them, to redirecting their parents’ attention to an object of their own interest.

In Infants Sense of People, Legerstee argues that these behavioral responses showed that infants were born with a social brain that gave them a leg up in connecting with the social world rather than a tabula rasa (blank slate) that initially only allowed infants to know the world behaviorally, rather than psychologically. “I proposed that the development of infants awareness of the mind, developed continuously rather than from perception to conception.”

Legerstee said the book did well. Soon after publication the book ranked seventh on best sellers in psychology, as compiled by YBP Library Services, and was subsequently translated into Italian and Japanese. Critics of her theoretical orientation, however, argued that as much as one would like to know what is in the minds of babies, the fact remains that infants, in the first few months of life, have only a small number of ways to tell us what they are thinking, she says.

For The Infant Mind, Legerstee decided to strengthen the interpretation of her behavioral findings by addressing the biological aspects of her research. This book addresses the biological mechanisms that subserve social interaction, based on the idea that identifying biological, cognitive and social levels of analysis contribute to more comprehensive explanations of human social-cognitive development and the infant social brain.

Consequently, the book promises a more detailed account of the relative contributions that innate and environmental components make to social cognition, and advances an understanding of child development and behavior. That because it includes research that focuses on collaborations between traditional social-cognitive developmental theory and social-cognitive developmental neuroscience (the empirical study of the neural mechanisms underlying development of social and cognitive processes).

A grant from York University’s Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovations, made it was possible to invite colleagues from various disciplines, who study the multiple domains that contribute to social and cognitive neuroscience development, to come to York to discuss their exciting and ground breaking research and subsequently contribute an article to the present volume, says Legerstee of the Faculty of Health.

“As a result of these collaborations, we edited the The Infant Mind: Origins of the Social Brain. The 14 internationally known interdisciplinary scientists who contributed to this volume are using the latest behavioral, hormonal, genetic and brain imaging technologies to discover how infants’ sensory, perceptual, cognitive, emotional and social capacities interact in social-cognitive development,” says Legerstee. “They provide a dynamic and holistic picture of early social-cognitive development that will constitute a major advance in the field.”

The book provides new insights into the development of the human child. The work is guided by extensive research into the reciprocal role of infant core abilities and social relationships in neural and behavioral development.  As such, Legerstee says, “the book is also an important teaching resource, and I have successfully used the book in my upper level developmental seminars and graduate courses.  The book is also an academic guide for those that work in the area of developmental social neuroscience and beyond.”

Legerstee is director of the Infancy Centre for Research at York and the recipient of a five-year Canada University Research Fellowship from the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada.