Almost every parent on the planet will corroborate what scientists tell you: your baby cries can make you crazy; or, in technical terms, green-light the brain’s fight-or-flight fear response — the same reflex activated in moments of severe, psychotic-break-inducing stress. (You’re nodding already, right?)
According to researchers, babies’ soul-piercing screams activate the amygdala, or ‘lizard brain’; the primal part of our brain that governs how we deal with scary situations. “Screams occupy their own little patch of the soundscape that doesn’t seem to be used for other things,” explains NYU professor of psychology and neuroscience, David Poeppel.
He suggests the effects of an infant’s distressed vocals are a product of evolution, focused on kicking the parental unit into high alert: racing hearts, spiking blood pressure, and general panic.
It’s not all terrifying, though. A teary babe also stimulates the release of “love” hormone oxytocin in its mum. What’s more, a recent study claims this hormone could influence how we hear and respond to sounds, following findings based on an experiment using mice.
“We found that oxytocin turns up the volume of social information processed in the brain,” says lead study author, Robert Froemke.
And to quell the argument between who is and ‘isn’t’ hearing the baby wailing at 2am – another study found that an infant’s distress can cut through most external noise, and affect all humans, with our brains being triggered into crisis management often before even having completely processed the sound.
Skeptical? Try travelling by plane with a bellowing baby on board and ask the passengers if they’re flying comfortably. Says University of Oxford Christine Parsons —
“When you hear a baby on a plane, you’re immediately alert, even if you don’t want to hear it. It’s a sound that’s very difficult to ignore.”