For crying out loud!: Baby cries get a speedy response

10 January 2012

The sound of babies crying is uniquely able to get adults to react at speed, Oxford University researchers have found.

They compared the scores of 40 volunteers on the classic arcade game ‘Whack-a-mole’ after listening to babies crying, with their scores after hearing sounds of adults in distress or birdsong similar in pitch and variability to infants’ cries.

The participants’ scores were higher after listening to the sound of crying babies. Men and women had similar scores overall.

The study is published in the journal Acta Paediatrica and was funded by the Wellcome Trust, the UK Medical Research Council and the TrygFonden Charitable Foundation in Denmark.

‘Whack-a-mole’ requires people to hit one of nine buttons, reacting as quickly as they can to whichever of the buttons lights up at random. It is a game that requires speed, accuracy and dexterity.

The researchers say that faster reactions may help us in responding to babies in distress.

Professor Morten Kringelbach, who together with Professor Alan Stein led the work in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford, says: ‘Our findings suggest that baby cries are treated as ‘special’. Neither adult cries nor birdsong produce the same response.

‘The improvements in speed and dexterity may reflect an evolved response that kicks in when an immediate reaction to a baby in distress is required. It is not hard to see how this could facilitate care-giving behaviour.’

Previous studies have shown that the sound of crying babies produces a physiological response in adults, seen in a higher heart rate, blood pressure and hand grip strength.This new work shows that this is likely to be part of a ‘high alert’ state where adults are primed to react rapidly to a baby’s distress.

The speed and accuracy in coordinated movements demonstrated in the ‘Whack-a-mole’ game shows an improved physical response. It contrasts with findings that have shown the sound of a crying baby impairs mental performance and concentration.

'Few sounds provoke a visceral reaction quite like the cry of a baby,’ says Professor Kringelbach. ‘For example, it is almost impossible to ignore crying babies on planes and the discomfort it arouses, despite all the other noises and distractions around.

He adds: ‘It has been clear that babies motivate adults to respond, and that hearing a baby cry must do something. For the first time, we have been able to show a real measurable benefit: we become better at time-pressured tasks.

‘Evolution has decided that it is a good thing for us to look after our young, and there is something in the acoustic properties of babies’ cries that evokes a very basic response that appears to be hardwired in ancient parts of our brains. Just the cry is needed to direct our attention. We don’t need to see the baby’s face, for example.

‘This is not just of academic interest. Our work is showing that in mothers with postnatal depression, through no fault of their own, this response may be disrupted to some extent. Depression and postnatal depression may result in some people not attending so much to babies’ cries. We are looking at whether interventions can make a difference to this.

’For more information please contact Professor Morten Kringelbach on +44 (0)1865 613118 or morten.kringelbach@psych.ox.ac.uk. Or first author Dr Christine Parsons on +44 (0)1865 613119 or christine.parsons@psych.ox.ac.uk

Or the University of Oxford press office on +44 (0)1865 280530 or press.office@admin.ox.ac.uk

Notes for editors

  • The paper ‘Listening to infant distress vocalizations enhances effortful motor performance’ by Christine Parsons and colleagues is to be published shortly in the journal Acta Paediatrica. The accepted, but not yet typeset, paper for publication is now available on the journal website at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1651-2227.2011.02554.x/abstract
  • Forty adults took part in the study; 20 men and 20 women. They ranged in age from 19 to 59, with an average age of 26.5. Three of the volunteers were parents, but no one in the study had young children.All were given three practice rounds of 30 sec on a small table-top version of the ‘Whack-a-mole’ game. Then they listened to 4.5 min of each of the three types of sound (babies crying, adults in distress, and bird sounds) before immediately playing the game again for 60 sec. The order of sounds played was varied to balance out across the 40 volunteers.
  • The study was funded by the Wellcome Trust, the UK Medical Research Council and the TrygFonden Charitable Foundation, Denmark.
  • The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. It supports the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Trust’s breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. It is independent of both political and commercial interests. www.wellcome.ac.uk
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