Boffins whack-a-mole for science

The sound of a baby’s cry has the unique ability of getting adults to improve their ‘whack-a-mole’ skills, a University study has found.

Using the ubiquitous arcade game ‘whack-a-mole’, the team of researchers discovered that the responses of adults were faster when they were listening to a baby’s cry as compared to other sounds.

The classic ‘whack-a-mole’ game is a game where the player has to react quickly by hitting whichever of the nine buttons that light up at random.

As part of the study, the scores of 40 volunteers, playing the game after listening to various sounds of similar pitch and variability, were recorded and compared. The findings showed that the scores were generally higher after the participants listened to babies crying as compared to distressed adults or birdsong.

The faster responses of the adults may help them react faster to a baby in distress. Professor Morten Kringelbach, the co-leader of the study said: “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.”

He added: “Few sounds provoke a visceral reaction quite like the cry of a baby. 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.”

Emilia Bohm, a second year psychologist from Teddy Hall, was enriched by Professor Kringelbach’s findings. She said: “study shows that adults’ ability to help is actually enhanced by an adult necessity to help which is signalled by the cries. So not only is the baby ideally adapted to get adults to help by making the exact noises which will cause adults to help, adults too, are also ideally adapted to respond to that help. This is an extremely interesting discovery and I am quite inclined to use it for my essays now!”

These findings have built on previous research, which have found that the sound of crying babies produces a heightened physiological response in adults, such as higher heart rate and hand grip strength. This new finding is likely to be part of a ‘high alert’ state where adults are primed to react rapidly to a baby’s distress.

The team intends to use the findings to make further inroads into the study of post-natal depression. Professor Kringelbach said: “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.”

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

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