Opinion | The Neuroscience Of ‘rock-a-bye Baby’
The researchers found that rocking induced a kind of synchrony in brain wave activity that varied in tandem with the external motion. Rocking also increased the number of brain oscillations specific to sleep, which are critical for memory consolidation and learning. Though the exact mechanism is unclear, the researchers hypothesize that rocking activates motion-sensitive neurons in the inner ear, which then leads to modulation of brain activity.
All this made me wonder: How does physical movement affect the brain more broadly? It’s well known that exercise enhances cognitive functioning, but what about movements like rocking that involve minimal exertion? What effect on the brain do our seemingly purposeless everyday physical movements have — like fidgeting, foot shaking and doodling, among others?
A 2016 study showed that children with A.D.H.D. who were allowed to fidget — bouncing around and moving gently in place — performed better on a concentration task the more they moved.
Another study focused on doodling. Researchers had 40 participants monitor a boring telephone message for the names of people attending a party. Half the group was randomly assigned to doodle — they shaded printed shapes — while listening to the message. The study found that the “doodling group performed better on the monitoring task and recalled 29 percent more information on a surprise memory test.”
So maybe my grade-school teachers were wrong to scold me for not “paying attention” in class because I was busy doodling or antsy — I might have in fact been enhancing my learning.
And what about the effects of repetitive everyday movements one sees in other areas of life — like during religious rituals? Orthodox Jews, for example, frequently “shuckle,” gently sway back and forth, during prayer. Does this physical activity enhance the religious experience in some way?
It wouldn’t be surprising if it did, given the fact that many “outside-in” interventions that target the body can also alter our brain and mind — like using Botox to treat depression or acupuncture for pain. We like to think the brain is sovereign, but it is obvious that it sometimes takes its marching orders from the body.
I imagine some marketing guru is out there right now, inventing a grown-up version of the SNOO — a $1,160 robotic bassinet that can gently rock a baby all night long. When it comes to sleep, “Rock-a-Bye Baby” isn’t just for kids.
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