Parents, take note! A baby’s cry not only commands your attention, it can also rattle your executive functions – the neural and cognitive processes used for making everyday decisions, according to a new study.
“Parental instinct appears to be hardwired, yet no one talks about how this instinct might include cognition,” said David Haley, associate professor of psychology at University of Toronto.
The study looked at the effect infant vocalisations – in this case audio clips of a baby laughing or crying – had on adults completing a cognitive conflict task.
The researchers used the Stroop task, in which participants were asked to rapidly identify the colour of a printed word while ignoring the meaning of the word itself.
Brain activity was measured using electroencephalography (EEG) during each trial of the cognitive task, which took place immediately after a two-second audio clip of an infant vocalisation.
The brain data showed that the infant cries reduced attention to the task and triggered greater cognitive conflict processing than the infant laughs.
Cognitive conflict processing is important because it controls attention – one of the most basic executive functions needed to complete a task or make a decision, said Haley.
“Parents are constantly making a variety of everyday decisions and have competing demands on their attention,” said Joanna Dudek, a graduate student in Haley’s Parent-Infant Research lab and lead author on the study.
“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?” said Dudek.
A baby’s cry has been shown to cause aversion in adults,but it could also be creating an adaptive response by “switching on” the cognitive control parents use in effectively responding to their child’s emotional needs while also addressing other demands in everyday life, said Haley.
“If an infant’s cry activates cognitive conflict in the brain, it could also be teaching parents how to focus their attention more selectively,” he said.
“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,” he added.
The study appears in the journal PLOS ONE.