Researchers discover why humans react to the sound of a baby crying

A team of scientists, including a graduate scholar from the University, have discovered why a crying baby is almost impossible to ignore.

Katie Young of Jesus College led the study, which found that our brains are programmed to react to the sound, preparing our bodies to help whenever we hear it, even if it is not our own child.

The team scanned the brains of 28 people while they listened to sounds including babies and adults crying, and animals in distress, to monitor their response.

Results showed that there was more activity in the brain when the participants were listening to the sound of a baby crying than when they listened to the other noises played.

The participants reacted to the noise of a baby crying after just 100 milliseconds. This was quicker than they reacted to any other played sound.

Young said: “The sound of a baby cry captures your attention in a way that few other sounds in the environment generally do.”

She added: “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.”

All participants in the study reacted in the same manner, despite having no children of their own.

Previous research has also identified a physiological response to the sound, with adults displaying an increase in heart rate and blood pressure when they hear the sounds of a baby crying.

Young’s colleague Christine Parsons suggeste: “This might be a fundamental response in all of us, regardless of parental status. When you 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.”

The team also conducted experiments to examine how our attitude to a baby crying might affect our behaviour. Volunteers played a game of whack-a-mole before and after listening to the different sounds, and the study found that they were a lot faster and more accurate after listening to the sound of an infant crying.

“It’s almost like we have this improvement in our effort for motive performance immediately after listening to vocalisations that might facilitate care-giving behaviour,” said Parsons.

The team presented their findings at the Society for Neuroscience annual conference in New Orleans this week.

Philippa Davis, a first-year Experimental Psychologist, said: “It’s great to see an Oxford psychologist succeeding in her field with an interesting breakthrough such as this.”

Young will continue her research to investigate whether mothers suffering from post-natal depression react differently to this sound.