barbie research dolls empathy
New research shows that doll play activates the brain region that is responsible for empathy Image Credit: Supplied

Parents and scientists have been concerned by the impact that COVID-19-related isolation is having on the development of children’s social skills.

But new evidence from Cardiff University has used neuroimaging to show that playing with dolls alone activates the same empathy-linked region of the brain as playing with others.

Scientists say this suggests that solo doll play can assist children in developing the kinds of social skills that can help them in later life, potentially lessening the negative impact of COVID-19-related social isolation for young children.

Brain scans show dolls literally spark empathy

The new study by neuroscientists at Cardiff University, done in collaboration with toy brand Barbie, is the first of its kind to use neuroimaging technology to explore the effects of doll-play at a brain level.

Senior lecturer Dr Sarah Gerson and her colleagues at Cardiff University’s Centre for Human Developmental Science monitored the brain activity of 33 children* between the ages of 4 and 8, as they played with a range of Barbie dolls. The team found that the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS), a region of the brain associated with social information processing and empathy, was activated even when the child was playing on their own. This brain activity indicates that doll play enables children to rehearse, use and perform these social skills even when playing on their own. Although playing with dolls is traditionally seen as a girl’s pursuit, the benefits were shown to be equal for both boys and girls.

Dr Gerson explains: “This is a completely new finding. We use this area of the brain when we think about other people, especially when we think about another person’s thoughts or feelings. Dolls encourage them to create their own little imaginary worlds, as opposed to say, problem-solving or building games. They encourage children to think about other people and how they might interact with each other. The fact that we saw the pSTS to be active in our study shows that playing with dolls is helping them rehearse some of the social skills they will need in later life. Because this brain region has been shown to play a similar role in supporting empathy and social processing across six continents, these findings are likely to be country agnostic”.

Dr Upasana Gala, UAE-based neuroscientist and CEO of Evolve Brain Training adds, “developing a sense of empathy is an essential life skill for young children as it helps them not only in their childhood years but also in their adult life. It helps them build better and stronger relationships with others, making them better learners and leaders. Raising empathetic children creates a better future for everyone. And this is especially important in today’s day and age where this is a growing need for social connection.”

Doll play is better than tablet play

To gather the data for the study, the children’s play was split into different sections so the Cardiff team could capture the brain activity relating to each other kind of play separately: playing with the dolls on their own; playing with the dolls together with another person (the research assistant); playing with the tablet game on their own and playing with the tablet game along with another person (the research assistant).

The dolls used included a diverse range of Barbie dolls and play sets with all Barbie dolls and sets returned to starting positions before each child began their test to ensure consistency of experience. Tablet play was carried out using games that allow children to engage with open and creative play (rather than a rule or goal-based games) to provide a similar play experience to doll play.

The findings of the study show that when children played alone with dolls, they showed the same levels of activation of the pSTS as they do when playing with others. Another finding of the study is that when children were left to play tablet games on their own, there was far less activation of the pSTS, even though the games involved a considerable creative element.

Relevance during COVID-19 times

To understand the relevancy of these neuroscience findings, Barbie independently commissioned a global survey** that asked more than 15,000 parents of children in 22 countries. Results of this showed 91 percent of parents ranked empathy as a key social skill they would like their child to develop, but only 26 percent were aware that doll play could help their child develop these skills.

During this time at home, parents are increasingly worried about ensuring their child is developing social development skills, with more than two-thirds (70 percent) saying they are concerned about how this isolation might affect their child and how their child interacts with others. Similarly, 74 percent of parents are more likely to encourage their child to play with a toy if they knew it was proven to help their child develop social and emotional skills, like empathy.

Leading empathy expert, writer, and educational psychologist, Dr Michele Borba, says: “The latest scientific findings from Cardiff University and Barbie are extraordinary and so relevant to the times we are living, given the limited social interaction our children can have. It’s been shown that children who have developed empathy and social skills early in life can have better grades, stay in school longer and make healthier choices overall. Empathetic children might also be more likely to stand up for a child being bullied and try to engage and resolve the conflict. Understanding that kids can help develop these skills through playing with dolls like Barbie, is remarkable and a helpful tool for parents.”

The results of the study have been published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience as ‘Exploring the Benefits of Doll Play through Neuroscience.’ Recognising that this study is a first step towards understanding the positive impact of doll play with further research required to build on these initial findings, Dr. Sarah Gerson and the Cardiff University team along with Mattel, have committed to further neuroscience studies in 2021.