Why it is impossible to sleep while travelling if a baby is crying
Even if we have no children of our own, hearing a baby’s scream provokes a sudden surge of emotion much stronger than that caused by a crying adult.
According to the researchers, our brains most likely develop a particularly acute response to the noise to allow us to react faster and more sensitively to our babies’ needs.
The scientists, from Oxford University, scanned the brains of 30 childless people while they listened to recordings of babies and adults crying and various animal distress noises such as dogs whining and cats mewing.
Their results revealed that when the baby sounds were being played, participants had significantly higher activity levels in two regions of the brain linked to the processing of emotions.
Katie Young, one of the researchers, said that the scans revealed the participants’ brains responded equally quickly to all of the noises, but only processed significant amounts of emotion in the case of babies.
“The sound of a baby crying is something that really captures your attention in a way that few other sounds in the environment generally do,” the Telegraph quoted her as saying.
“What our study suggests is that there is something special about the way that babies sound that means that quite complex characteristics...of a baby cry seem to be processed much earlier,” she said.
The burst of brain activity was the same in men and women, and came after just 100 milliseconds - less than the amount of time it takes a sprinter to leave the blocks after hearing the starter’s gun.
Scientists had previously thought that the brain could only process more basic qualities of sound such as volume and pitch in such a short time frame, but the results show that in the case of babies’ cries a more complex emotional response is possible.
“The study was in people who were not parents and had no particular experience looking after babies, and yet they are all responding at 100 milliseconds to these particular sounds, so this might be a fundamental response present in all of us regardless of parental status,” Dr Christine Parsons, another scientist involved in the research, said.
“When you a hear a baby on a plane you are immediately alert - it is one of those sounds it is very difficult to ignore, and it might facilitate us in responding quickly at a time when you really need to,” Parsons added.
The findings of the study have been presented at the Society for Neuroscience annual conference in New Orleans.