Processing facial expressions is an essential component of social interaction, especially for preverbal infants. In human adults and monkeys, this process involves the motor system, with a neural matching mechanism believed to couple self- and other-generated facial gestures. Here, we used electroencephalography to demonstrate recruitment of the human motor system during observation and execution of facial expressions in nine-month-old infants, implicating this system in facial expression processing from a very young age. Notably, examination of early video-recorded mother-infant interactions supported the common, but as yet untested, hypothesis that maternal mirroring of infant facial gestures is central to the development of a neural matching mechanism for these gestures. Specifically, the extent to which mothers mirrored infant facial expressions at two months postpartum predicted infant motor system activity during observation of the same expressions at nine months. This suggests that maternal mirroring strengthens mappings between visual and motor representations of facial gestures, which increases infant neural sensitivity to particularly relevant cues in the early social environment.
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