Anyone who has found themselves on a plane next to a crying baby knows the disgruntled "bundle of joy" is impossible to ignore. A team of researchers from Oxford University says there's a reason for that: It's science. The cries of a baby, they've found, trigger emotional responses in the brain that we're hardwired to hear — no matter how hard we try to tune them out. Here, a brief guide to the findings:
What happened in the experiment?
A team of Oxford University researchers, led by Dr. Katie Young and Dr. Christine Parsons, subjected 28 people to the sound of babies and adults crying, as well as the whimpers of cats and dogs. Simultaneously, the team administered a very fast brain scan technique called magnetoencephalography, which maps brain activity by monitoring electrical currents. Their goal was to see if the cries of young children triggered a different kind of emotional response than other kinds of distress signals.
What did they find?
The brain scan revealed an early burst of activity followed by an intense reaction 100 milliseconds after a baby's cries were heard. The other sounds failed to elicit the same sort of neural response. "This was primarily in two regions of the brain," says Dr. Young. "One is the middle temporal gyrus, an area previously implicated in emotional processing and speech; the other area is the orbitofrontal cortex, an area well-known for its role in reward and emotion processing." The response was the same whether the subject had children or not.
And what does all this mean?
The innate brain activity from parents and non-parents alike is most likely "a fundamental response present in all of us," says Dr. Parsons. Even men can't ignore the crying. The commonly held belief is that men might "barely notice" babies right next to them, "but it's not true." The team hopes their findings will lead to new treatments for post-natal depression in women, by demonstrating how a healthy brain responds to a child's cries. "The first 18 months of life are so important for developing and shaping who we become," says Dr. Young, "so any adversity during this period can have a major long-term impact."
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