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Ask A Scientist: How Does Clapping Improve Empathy In Young Children?

UPDATED

This is the first installation in a new feature we're going to try out on the blog, called Ask a Scientist. Inspired by the popularity of our recent post on what scientists know about babies' brains, we'll have a series of conversations with researchers who are studying the cognitive development of young children.

As you will know if you're a regular reader, the advances in our understanding of brain science have huge implications for the education and care of young children. These discoveries are often cited as one justification for broadening public programs for young children.

But what do we actually know? Our goal here is to answer that question and to get at it in plain English, one conversation at a time.

Here's the first one:

Tal-Chen Rabinowitch is a post-doctorate fellow at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington. She recently published a paper on how "synchrony," or the act of performing synchronized movement with a peer, can contribute to increases in empathy in children. Rabinowitch conducted most of this research at Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel at the lab of Ariel Knafo.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What got you interested in the research that you're doing now?

I'm both a musician and a psychologist. And I'm very interested in how music develops social and emotional capacities, specifically in children. In my PhD work that I did in Cambridge, I led research that showed musical group interaction, where two or more children play music with each other, enhances their capacity for empathy afterwards.

In this research, the "synchrony" was very pronounced as some kind of a mechanism that might drive everything, or a big part of what's going on between music and empathy. So that's what made me want to be researching and investigating that area of whether "synchrony" might contribute to more positive social interactions between children.

Can you define the term "synchrony"?

In the definition that we use in this study, it's when two or more people— in this case it was two children—move at the same time.

Would that be kids building blocks side-by-side, or would it be kids clapping together and stomping their feet at the same time?

Well, usually when you build blocks side-by-side you can do it in a coordinated way, but not in a synchronized way. So there's a difference between these two things. Synchrony is really being in-time together very precisely—more like clapping hands together.

In this research what we've done is having kids tap (a button) in time to a ball that was bouncing up-and-down, up and down. Each kid had their own ball. Then we had two conditions. Either the balls were bouncing up and down at the exact same time, or the balls were bouncing up and down at different times.

After that interaction, we asked the kids how similar they think they are to the other kids.

And you found that the kids who were (tapping at the same time) felt closer and felt they were more similar to the other child?

Right.

So what are some practical applications of this finding for, say, a preschool teacher?

I have to say we're a long way from having practical applications. This is basic research. This is really about the phenomenon, and whether it exists at all. Do children respond to synchrony in a positive way as has been witnessed with adults?  

But I can tell you that I'm really hoping that with more research we and other people in this field will be able to do something very practical with this. If it is a strong phenomenon like we think it is, it can lead to really nice tools that make people be more positive toward each other.

That's fair. This is the beginning of a new field of research. But is it also fair to say that probably sing-a-longs might have more benefit than teachers may have realized?

Maybe. If you would view playing music or just drumming together as mainly aesthetic or enjoyable, then maybe it's news that there's much more to that than just to be fun and a good experience. Because what it can do, and this is not the only study that shows it, there's other studies that show synchrony is a vehicle for having people remember more things about one another when they're in synchrony or liking each other better or wanting to help more. Specifically, those studies were about adults.

So maybe that would be interesting for teachers and parents to know there's something more to music or synchrony than having a good and fun experience together. But exactly how you operationalize it and how you use it, that's still to be revealed in future studies.

Read the full study here.

This item has been updated and clarified.

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