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Neuroimaging Examines Mother’s Responses to Baby’s Smile

Posted Oct 03 2008 12:51pm

According to this research, the brains of 28 mothers were examined as they were shown photographs of both there own babies, as well as other infants. The mothers were shown photographs of the infants displaying smiles, sad faces, or neutral expressions. The researchers found that when mothers were exposed to pictures of their children displaying a smiling face, the “reward centers” of their brain became activated. Previous research has identified these areas as also responding to substance use. The researchers suggest that a mother seeing her baby smile may be akin to a “natural high.” The areas of the brain involved include the substantia nigra, the striatum, and parts of the frontal lobe, and the neurotransmitter dopamine is also involved.

What is interesting about this study is that when mothers were shown pictures of their children portrayed as sad or neutral, the same regions of the brain were also activated, albeit at lower levels. So even seeing her baby crying prompted some level of reinforcement in the mother. This surprised the researchers, and does appear to be somewhat counterintuitive. In addition, mothers had similar experiences in viewing other children as opposed to their own, but again with less impact. I suppose this would suggest the presence of some neurological/evolutionary drive towards attending to children in general, but we also respond much more strongly when attending to our own children. The researchers also indicate that by examining this data, they may be able to study more specifically how and when the bonding process falters.

I would imagine there are other areas available for further research. For example, this study focused exclusively on mothers. What about differences between mothers and women who are not mothers, in addition to gender differences. Do women without children differ significantly from men without children, and do men undergo a significant change once they become fathers? In addition, it would be fascinating to conduct this study with samples of biological mothers, adoptive mothers, and stepmothers (as well as male equivalents).

From a different perspective, this research is not all that surprising. My recollection of previous research is that people are predisposed toward looking at babies’ faces favorably. In fact, isn’t this one of the secrets animators stumbled upon years ago? It would appear Walt Disney and company have made a fortune in applying just such knowledge. This would be another example of how neuroscience is finally confirming what people when the arts have known for a long time. I am referring, of course, would to the book Proust was a Neuroscientist. See my post here if you have no idea of what I’m talking about.

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