Evidence for a Caregiving Instinct: Rapid Differentiation of Infant from Adult Vocalizations Using Magnetoencephalography

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Crying is the most salient vocal signal of distress. The cries of a newborn infant alert adult listeners and often elicit caregiving behavior. For the parent, rapid responding to an infant in distress is an adaptive behavior, functioning to ensure offspring survival. The ability to react rapidly requires quick recognition and evaluation of stimuli followed by a co-ordinated motor response. Previous neuroimaging research has demonstrated early specialized activity in response to infant faces. Using magnetoencephalography, we found similarly early (100–200 ms) differences in neural responses to infant and adult cry vocalizations in auditory, emotional, and motor cortical brain regions. We propose that this early differential activity may help to rapidly identify infant cries and engage affective and motor neural circuitry to promote adaptive behavioral responding, before conscious awareness. These differences were observed in adults who were not parents, perhaps indicative of a universal brain-based “caregiving instinct.”

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