When women say things to newborn infants like: "You are so cute, lil' baby; look at those sausage arms! I just want to gobble them up!", they don't mean it literally unless they are the Baba Yaga. This is something I wanted to make clear right from the get-go — unlike this article in the Christian Science Monitor, which takes the "women want to consume infants like so many diaper-clad Big Macs" joke like four paragraphs too far.
Anyway, a new study has found that the scent of newborn babies triggers the reward circuit in women's brains, causing them to feel joy in the presence of little ones. According to Johannes Frasnelli of the University of Montreal:
The olfactory—thus non-verbal and non-visual—chemical signals for communication between mother and child are intense. What we have shown for the first time is that the odour of newborns, which is part of these signals, activates the neurological reward circuit in mothers. These circuits may especially be activated when you eat while being very hungry, but also in a craving addict receiving his drug. It is in fact the sating of desire.
For the experiment, researchers presented to groups of 15 women with odor taken from the pajamas of unfamiliar 2-day-old infants. One group was comprised of women who had given birth 3 - 6 weeks prior to the experiment; the second was made up for women who'd never given birth. Although both groups perceived the baby aroma with the same intensity, brain imaging revealed more activation in the caudate nucleus — the brain's reward center — of the new mothers.
In the (really incorrect, but lol get it baby eating) words of the Christian Science Monitor:
[T]he mothers' reward circuits showed far more activation than those of the non-mothers; moms presumably experience an even greater desire to chow down on delectable infants. Thankfully for the continuation of our species, this Medean impulse is fleeting: the researchers hypothesize that the reward circuit's response evolved to encourage mothers to feed and protect their kids, not to really eat them.
In reality, the Medean impulse is not "fleeting"; rather, it's nonexistent. As the researchers, who are professional scientists, posit, the smell of a baby plays a role in developing "motivational and emotional responses between mother and child" and in eliciting "maternal care functions such as breastfeeding and protection." Feeding and protecting something, by the way, is the opposite of plotting to eat its juicy little body. Just throwing that out there.
Two questions remain. Firstly, does the greater activation of the rewards system in mothers have to do with a hormonal change following childbirth, or is it just a result of women having an olfactory experience with their own babies that they're recalling when they smell the pajama-scents of strange newborns? And, secondly, do baby smells effect men in the same way? The Christian Science Monitor had better start annotating a copy of A Modest Proposal now, just in case the researchers decide to investigate the latter.
"Why do people want to eat babies? Scientists explain." [Christian Science Monitor]
"Why do you want to eat that baby?" [University of Montreal]
Image via showice/Shutterstock.