We all know the feeling. Baby starts crying and we start feeling all hot, frazzled and basically, crazy. If you feel like you're the only one who can't seem to get a thought together when there's a crying baby around, science says you're not alone. According to a new study published in PLOS One, the sound of a baby's cry changes the executive function of parents' brains—a.k.a. the process people use to make everyday decisions.
Dr. David Haley, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough and co-author of the study says, “Parental instinct appears to be hardwired, yet no one talks about how this instinct might include cognition."
“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?” he asks.
Researchers played audio clips of either a baby crying or a baby laughing and two seconds later had parents take a cognitive test where they had to quickly identify the color of a word shown on a flash card while disregarding its meaning.
And the findings aren't necessarily shocking. The group that listened to an infant's cries were slower, had trouble paying attention to the task, and experienced more "conflict processing." Don't most parents experience this phenomenon every single day?
"Parents are constantly making a variety of everyday decisions and have competing demands on their attention," said study lead author Joanna Dudek.
"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?"
One theory the researchers put forth is that the crying may actually provoke an "adaptive" response in parents, forcing them to make decisions efficiently to help their child.
Hayley surmises, "If an infant's cry activates cognitive conflict in the brain, it could also be teaching parents how to focus their attention more selectively. 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."
This study adds to previous theories that our brains may be hard-wired to take care of children.