London - As any bleary-eyed plane passenger will confirm, a crying baby is almost impossible to ignore, no matter how hard you try.
Now scientists believe they may have worked out why.
An infant’s wails pull at the heartstrings in a way that other cries don’t, researchers found.
Just milliseconds after registering the cry, the brain’s emotion centres are hard at work. It had been thought that the brain was incapable of processing complex facets of sound in such a short time.
Other types of cry, including calls of animals in distress, fail to elicit the same response – suggesting the brain is programmed to respond specifically to a baby’s cry.
A team of Oxford University scientists scanned the brains of 28 men and women as they listened to a variety of calls and cries.
After 100 milliseconds – roughly the time it takes to blink – two regions of the brain that respond to emotion lit up.
Their response to a baby’s cry was particularly strong, the Society for Neuroscience’s annual conference in New Orleans heard. The response was seen in both men and women – even if they had no children.
Researcher Dr Christine Parsons said: “You might read that men should barely notice a baby and step over it and not see any of them but it’s not true.
“There is a specialised processing in men and women which makes sense from an evolutionary perspective that both genders would be responding to these cues.
“The study was in people who were not parents, have no particular experience of looking after babies and yet they are all responding at 100ms to these particular sounds, so this might be a fundamental response present in all of us regardless of parental status.”
Fellow researcher Katie Young said it might take a bit longer for someone to recognise their own child’s cries because they need to do more “fine-grained analysis”.
The team had previously found that our reactions speed up when we hear a baby crying.
Adults performed better on an arcade game requiring speed, accuracy and dexterity when they were played the sound of a baby crying than after they heard recordings of adults crying or high-pitched birdsong.
The findings could help shed light on post-natal depression – where mothers struggle to bond with their newborn – by showing how a healthy brain responds to a baby’s cries. - Daily Mail