A study has shown that specific regions of a mother’s brain are activated in response to her baby crying, irrespective of which country she lives in and her culture.
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The research identified brain patterns and behaviors that were consistent among women from 11 different countries. The authors of the study say that understanding these behaviors could help identify people at risk of maltreating a child.
Marc Bornstein (Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development [NICHD]) and colleagues assessed 684 new mothers by observing one hour of the interaction they had with their 5-month old babies while they were at home. The authors looked at whether a mother’s response to hearing her baby cry was to distract, nurture, pickup and hold, talk to or be affectionate to the baby. The mothers were from Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Cameroon, France, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kenya, South Korea and the United States.
As reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the mothers were likely to pick up, and hold or talk to their babies, responses that were consistent among the women, irrespective of their country of residence.
The team also conducted brain imaging studies of other groups of mothers and found that certain areas of the brain were activated in response to hearing their babies cry. The brain regions activated were the superior temporal regions, which are linked to sound processing, the supplementary motor area, which is associated with the intention to move and speak and the inferior frontal regions, which are involved in the production of speech.
These results suggest a mother’s brain is hard-wired to respond in a certain way to her baby crying, irrespective of her culture and where she is from.
The study also builds on previous work by Bornstein and colleagues showing differences in how women’s and men’s brains respond to the cries.
Those findings, which are published in NeuroReport, indicate that men and women show marked differences in terms of attention, says Bornstein.
The study involved 18 male and female parents and nonparents being asked to let their minds wander. The participants were then played a 15-minute recording of white noise interspersed with the sounds of an infant crying. Brain imaging studies showed that when women heard the cries, there was an abrupt switch in brain activity from the rested state or “default mode,” to an attentive state, whereas men’s brains stayed in the rested state.
“Determining whether these responses differ between men and women, by age, and by parental status, helps us understand instincts for caring for the very young,” says Bornstein. Such studies represent the first steps in neuroscience research towards understanding how adults relate to and care for infants, he adds.