Here’s an academic paper title that every parent can relate to: “Infant Cries Rattle Adult Cognition.” Recently published in the journal PLOS One, the study starts out by reviewing a number of experiments looking at how the sound of a baby’s crying affects adults’ thinking processes. Some highlights:
• One study asked mothers to solve arithmetic problems while hearing a baby cry or while hearing machine noise. The infant wails reduced the mothers’ concentration levels more than the machine noise.
• In another study, adults were asked to calculate simple subtraction problems while listening to baby sounds like whines and cries, or while listening to control sounds. Participants were more distracted when listening to the infant vocalizations than to control sounds, regardless of gender or parental status.
• A third study found that participants made the most mistakes on a working memory task when listening to infant crying, compared to other disturbing noises.
The new study, led by psychologist Joanna Dudek of the University of Toronto, sought to find out just what is going on in these adults’ brains by using electroencephalography (EEG) and event-related potentials (ERPs). Dudek and her coauthors monitored participants’ brain activity as they completed a challenging mental task while listening to the sound of either a baby cry or a baby laugh. The results:
“Our study shows that the infant cry challenges the adult brain’s capacity to engage in parallel processing—to simultaneously distinguish between and process two distinct streams of information.
“While the standard evolutionary view posits that the infant cry’s power to capture our attention is adaptive, this view does not address the potential costs of attention depletion in the caregiver. Nor does it address the possible practical benefits of a caregiver’s momentarily ignoring the infant cry in order to shift and attend flexibly to multiple demands—a skill that presumably would benefit both the quality of infant care and the well-being of caregivers.”
It’s distressing to think that the sound of a baby crying reduces our mental agility just at the moment when we most need it. But it helps to take the long view of parenthood and its effects on our intellectual capacities. In her wonderful book The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter, journalist Katherine Ellison reviews the research demonstrating that, over time, the experience of mothering makes women “more perceptive, efficient, resilient, motivated, and emotionally intelligent.”
And, in fact, even Dudek and her coauthors suggest that there may be an intellectual upside for parents in hearing a baby cry. Generally speaking, when we experience “cognitive conflict”—when we feel mentally torn between two ideas or two courses of action—we then become more cognitively flexible. It’s the same phenomenon we see in creativity, where unexpected new ideas often arise out of a clash of dissonant thoughts or emotions. At the close of their paper, Dudek and her coauthors take note of:
“…the potentially adaptive function of the cognitive conflict that the infant cry elicits, which may foster a cognitive flexibility that enables the caregiver to selectively respond both to infant vocal distress and to competing demands, rapidly switching between them and thereby optimizing environmental resources.”
Here, then, is another phenomenon that every parent will recognize: the resourcefulness that emerges out of the conflicting demands of caring for children and getting stuff done.
This post originally appeared on Annie Murphy Paul’s Brilliant Blog.