Hey, Baby

A paper was published in PLoS by Kringelbach crew recently, and it is absolutely adorable.

Morten Kringelbach is an fMRI, MEG guy who studies global brain reactions to specific stimuli. In this most recent work, he and his team studied the differences between the brain reactions of adult test subjects to subliminal adult and baby faces. They flashed alternating pictures of infants and grown-ups, which were controlled for things like directional gaze and attractiveness (the photos were NOT taken from “Hot or Not”, so far as we know) and then looked at the brain response of the viewer over time by magnetoencephalography. They found that, with the baby faces, there was this short burst of medial orbitofrontal cortex–a subcortical information integration site–activity that didn’t show up when adult faces were shown.

Now, they interpreted this to be a clue as to the evolutionary neural roots of the human affinity for little babies. But that conclusion is hardly definitive. A few questions have to be asked:

1) People have to learn what a baby looks like, and they don’t learn it first. Babies spend most of their first year on their backs checking out adults (who happen to be making ridiculous faces at the time). So, is the emotional response to baby faces pre-wired, or is it something that they learn later when they realize what a baby is?

2) I’m interested in knowing if this response occurs in exactly the same way with kittens, puppies, Japanese cartoon characters, Obama, and anything else considered cuddly. Maybe they found a “cute zone” in the brain, and not a specifically “infant zone”, although cuteness response might admittedly be a by-product of infant affinity. For a further control, they should also find nerds who raise snakes and spiders, and see if they have a similar reaction to those stimuli. (“Oh, who’s the cute widdle python. You! You are de cute widdle python yes you are.” )

3) The time lapse of the MEG is very interesting, because the orbitofrontal response occurs before the occipital lobe–the visual processing center–response becomes very big. So the question is, how is that orbitofrontal cortex getting the signal that a baby’s face has been seen? Does the primary region of the occipital lobe project all the way up to the opposite side of the brain? What is the actual wiring? That question is really at the heart of their promising but premature conclusion.

With that out of the way, here’s where this research gets a little wilder. Discovery News, who made this paper one of their headliners, quoted Kringlebach as saying, “Prior research has even found that men prefer female faces with baby-like features. The data is more complex for women who, depending on their ovulation, tend to prefer either very masculine or baby-like faces.” This is an example of neuroscience with substantial implications of the singles dating scene. Fellas, if you’re ever trying to work it with the ladies, and they just don’t seem to be responding to you, try shaving your head, stuffing your cheeks with marshmallows and squealing. Science guarantees a significant change in the response.

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