A baby’s cry not only gets our attention, it also rattles our executive functions — the neural and cognitive processes we use for making everyday decisions, according to a new study.
“Parental instinct appears to be hardwired, yet no one talks about how this instinct might include cognition,” said Dr. David Haley, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough and a co-author of the study.
“If we simply had an automatic response every time a baby started crying, how would we think about competing concerns in the environment or how best to respond to a baby’s distress?”
Published in PLOS ONE, the study examined what effect hearing audio clips of a baby laughing or crying had on adults completing a cognitive conflict task.
The researchers used the Stroop task, in which participants were asked to rapidly identify the color of a printed word while ignoring the meaning of the word itself.
Brain activity was measured using electroencephalography (EEG) during each trial of the cognitive task, which took place.
The data revealed that the infant cries reduced attention to the task and triggered greater cognitive conflict processing than the infant laughs, according to the researchers.
Cognitive conflict processing is important because it controls attention — one of the most basic executive functions needed to complete a task or make a decision, noted Haley, who runs the university’s Parent-Infant Research Lab.
“Parents are constantly making a variety of everyday decisions and have competing demands on their attention,” said Joanna Dudek, a graduate student in the lab and the lead author of the study.
“They may be in the middle of doing chores when the doorbell rings and their child starts to cry. How do they stay calm, cool, and collected, and how do they know when to drop what they’re doing and pick up the child?”
A baby’s cry has been shown to cause aversion in adults, but it could also create an adaptive response by “switching on” the cognitive control parents use to respond to their child’s emotional needs while also addressing other demands in everyday life, Haley added.
“If an infant’s cry activates cognitive conflict in the brain, it could also be teaching parents how to focus their attention more selectively,” he explained. “It’s this cognitive flexibility that allows parents to rapidly switch between responding to their baby’s distress and other competing demands in their lives, which, paradoxically, may mean ignoring the infant momentarily.”
The study’s findings add to a growing body of research suggesting that infants occupy a privileged status in our neurobiological programming, one deeply rooted in our evolutionary past. But, it also reveals an important adaptive cognitive function in the human brain, according to Haley.
The next steps in the research will be to look at whether there are individual differences in the neural activation of attention and conflict processing in new mothers that may affect their capacity to respond sensitively to their own infants’ cries, Haley concluded.
Source: University of Toronto