A crying baby will get your attention. That’s not news. Anyone who’s ever heard one (and that’s pretty much all of us) can attest to the fact that no matter what else is in your ears, you’ll be focusing almost solely on that little human’s screams.
But a new study out of the University of Toronto suggests that not only do a baby’s cries command attention, they also change our brains and teach us how to multitask under stressful situations. “If an infant’s cry activates cognitive conflict in the brain, it could also be teaching parents how to focus their attention more selectively,” said Dr. David Haley, a professor at the University of Toronto who runs the Parent-Infant Research Lab.
Previous studies have shown that when mothers are asked to perform simple math problems, and they hear the cries of a real life baby versus a machine sound, the human wails are significantly better at breaking concentration .
But these new researchers wanted to go beyond tracking negative sounds (cries) and parents performing cognitive tasks, like math. So they set out to study both laughter (positive sounds) and cries (the negative ones), with adults performing sequential tasks, like selecting colours and words on a computer screen.
The findings? We can be pretty selective when it comes to what we hear, and our kids are training us to be that way. The cries also caused the test subjects’ brains to process cognitive conflict better than the sound of laughter. Cries are distracting, yes, but we adapt to the situation and learn to focus our attention on the task at hand.
“In addition to confirming the long-recognized power of the infant cry to capture attention, 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,” the study found.
So, if your baby’s crying in her crib, but the laundry just finished its last spin cycle and is furiously beeping, don’t stress — you’re actually getting smarter. Do the laundry, attend to the screamer, and, heck, you might as well put a podcast in one ear while you’re at it.