As any parent knows, the sound of a baby’s wailing screams seems to naturally up one’s blood pressure, open one’s sweat glands, and kickstart the panic mode. And as any non-parent knows, a screaming child grates the nerves like no other sound. Well, it turns out parents and non-parents alike may share similar brain functions when the bottom lip pops out and the cries begin to swell.
Katie Young, of Oxford University, along with her colleague Christine Parsons, laid out their research for this week’s Society for Neuroscience meeting in New Orleans. Young rounded up 28 volunteers, none of them parents or experienced in childcare, and played them all the sounds of babies and adults crying, along with similar noises from non-humans, such as distressed cats and dogs.
Using magnetoencephalography, a non-invasive procedure that rapidly measures magnetic fields created in the brain, she scanned the brains of all volunteers, discovering each subject’s brain reacted intensely to the crying babies after only 100 milliseconds, yet not as intensely for the other sounds. Two regions of the brain showed high activity. “One is the middle temporal gyrus, an area previously implicated in emotional processing and speech,” Young explains. “The other area is the orbitofrontal cortex, an area well-known for its role in reward and emotion processing.”
That the sub-cortical areas of the brain, which go far back into our evolution, are affected by the cries tells researchers that this response is akin to the purest of human behavior, such as survival skills. And beyond it being such an intense reaction for the brain to process, it happens before we even realize we’re consciously reacting to it. Of course, that reaction seems to quickly sour when happening in a movie theater or other close quarters, but doesn’t mean we’re on less alert.
Parsons used a Whack-a-Mole game to test the subjects’ responses, having them play before and after listening to the various sounds, and found they were faster and more accurate. Being wordy, Parsons says, “It’s almost like we have this improvement in our effort for motive performance immediately after listening to vocalizations that might facilitate care-giving behavior.”
The next time you’re sitting in church and the six-month-old behind you lets out an ear-piercing wail, remember that your immediate reaction is to help, not to dunk its head in the holy water.