Category: Chocolate Babies

How Long Will Everyone Think Your Baby is Adorable?

Posted in Chocolate Babies, parenting, pregnancy, psychology by jenapincott on November 26, 2011

When our baby was six months old, my husband and I couldn’t walk down the street without stopping to accept a compliment. Baby was something of a local celebrity or a minor deity. Free pizza and donuts, the choicest table in the restaurant, a bracelet, stickers, sunglasses, a spot at the front of the line — these were some of the offerings made by the infant’s admirers. Ten months have now passed, and now she’s a toddler. To me, she’s as cute as ever, and she still receives a lot of kisses and waves from strangers. But, we’ve got to face it — she doesn’t attract the same the solicitous stop-in-the-street simpering that she did in her first year. How much longer will it be before everyone stops thinking she’s so adorable?

This question happens to be the subject of a new study on children’s faces. A trio of psychologists— Lu Zhu Luo, Hong Li, and Kang Lee — in China, and at the University of Toronto, recruited 60 men and women and showed then a large sample of children’s faces ranging from infants to 6-and-and-half-year-olds. The participants were asked to rate each face’s likeability (How much do you like the face?) and attractiveness (How attractive is the face?). The researchers wanted to know if younger kids would be given higher attractiveness ratings than older kids — and, if so, at what age does the cut-off happen from over-the-top adorable to merely cute?

The answer? Yes, it’s as expected. Men and women rated infants as cuter than toddlers, who, in turn are rated as cuter than young children. The big drop-off in cuteness appears to happen somewhere between preschool and kindergarten. The researchers identified it as approximately age 4 ½.

What happens to school-age kids?

Their facial structure changes, according to the Luo and his colleagues. Infants have a special set of features, such as a protruding forehead, a large head, a round face, big eyes, and a small nose or mouth. As a species, we have evolved to be attracted to babyish features and find them adorable. These cues make us feel soft and protective, whether or not we’re biologically related — which increases the likelihood of the baby’s survival. (Indeed, studies have found that infants that have tiny eyes, flat foreheads, and square faces, for instance, are less likely to receive attention.) Pleasingly, our tendency to prefer infantile faces even extends to infant faces of other races.

Facial cranial growth is gradual, as is a child’s independence from constant care-giving. Children’s faces lose some of their universal appeal right around the age that they don’t need it anymore to (merely) survive — somewhere around kindergarten-age. Incidentally, this interval — four to five years — is the same as natural birth spacing — when our foremothers would become pregnant with their next baby.

Chocolate Lovers Are Sweeter!

Posted in Chocolate Babies, parenting, pregnancy, science by jenapincott on November 15, 2011

Not long ago, someone emailed me a new study on chocolate and temperament. The study came from a group of psychologists at North Dakota State University and Gettysburg College, and it involved personality differences between people who liked sweet foods versus bitter, spicy, sour, salty, or umami flavors. The researchers wanted to know, “Is having a sweet tooth related to having a sweeter disposition?”

Here’s a sample of what they asked their hundred or so volunteers.

Candy, caramel, chocolate cake, honey, ice cream, maple syrup, pears, raisins, strawberries, and sugar. How fond were they of these dessert flavors?

The volunteers rated their taste preferences on a scale of 1-10.

Following that, they completed an agreeableness scale. That is, they were asked to indicate the extent to which they behave in ways reflective of high (e.g., “have a soft heart”) versus low (e.g., “insult people”) levels of agreeableness.

Pleasingly, the researchers found a significant correlation. People who loved sweets were likelier to be more agreeable.

“Further proof that chocolate lovers would have sweeter babies!” my sender gushed. There’s logic here: If people with a sweet tooth really have a sweeter disposition then women who love sweets might have more agreeable babies because disposition is heritable. Equally valid, people who have sweeter dispositions would have a gentler parenting style, resulting in babies with sweeter dispositions. Ergo, chocolate lovers have sweeter babies. Natch.

Then the researchers took their study to the next level to see if sweet-toothed types not only test as more agreeable, but act sweeter too.

At the end of the session, participants were told that the study was over and that full participation credit would be awarded, thereby relieving them of any further obligations. However, it was mentioned that a colleague in the English department was collecting data on media preferences and was looking for volunteers.

Interestingly, people who had a sweet tooth were more likely to complete the voluntary survey, even though they weren’t getting any extra credit or compensation.

Such sweethearts!

I wonder: does the mere suggestion of sweet food make people act sweeter? Does sweet food make people less angry and aggressive? The researchers claim that metaphors can be predictive about behavior and personality. Because “sweet” in English applies to both taste and disposition, does the correlation still apply in different languages?

How sweet would that be?

How Might Motherhood Prevent Dementia?

Posted in Chocolate Babies, parenting, pregnancy, psychology, science by jenapincott on October 31, 2011

Among the great mysteries — and horrible injustices — of aging is that dementia strikes more women than men. No one knows why exactly.  For years, scientists suspected that the culprit is estrogen. Implicated in memory formation, estrogen levels plummet after women reach menopause.

But here’s the catch.  If low estrogen levels are behind age-related dementia in women, then why did a massive study by the National Institute of Health find that women who had hormone replacement therapy (HRT) were no less likely to experience cognitive decline than women who didn’t have it?

Because not all estrogens are created equal, nor are all brains.  Motherhood may be the missing link.

This comes from an intriguing new study by Cindy Barha and Liisa Galea, neuroscientists at the University of British Columbia’s Brain Research Center.  Barha and Galea knew that the female brain is highly plastic; it literally restructures itself in the course of pregnancy and caring for a baby.  They were curious about whether motherhood might alter the brain in a way that protects against dementia under certain conditions.

One way to explore this is to study middle-aged rats that are genetically identical in every way with the exception of their reproductive lives.  The scientists divided the rats into groups — virgins and mothers — and injected each with a form of estrogen:  estradiol or estrone (the form in HRT).  Later, they looked at the rats’ brain tissue to see whether new cells had formed — a process called neurogenesis — in the hippocampus where memories are formed.  These new cells may reduce the risk of dementia.

It’s interesting, this contest between middle-aged virgins and mothers.  Compared to virgins who had been injected with estrogens (and mothers who hadn’t), the middle-aged mother rats that took the hormone replacement therapy grew significantly more new hippocampal cells.  The mothers — and only the mothers — grew many new neurons when exposed to the estrogens (especially a combination of estrone and 17a-estradiol).  The hormones helped the mothers’ minds to remain malleable.

Why did the mothers have a seeming advantage?  Anther mystery — which Barha and Galea say may be related to an enhanced ability of mothers’ hippocampuses, even late in life, to respond to estrogens.  Such responsiveness may come from hormone exposure during pregnancy or afterward, or enrichment from the experience of mothering.

Interestingly, estradiol’s effect on the brain is mediated by BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor levels), which may be higher in mothers than in those who have not given birth. The researchers note that BDNF may help explain an assocation between high levels of estrogen exposure across a lifespan and a decreased risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. Among rats, those who have been mothers have a reduced age-related decline in spatial memory and other cognitive decline.

The scientists conclude:

Therefore previous reproductive experience, which is associated with altered hormone exposure and greater enrichment, can result in higher levels of plasticity in the middle-aged brain and may protect the brain from the deleterious effects of aging in females.

But there’s a very real caveat.  Applied to humans, these findings are still highly speculative. First, the boost would depend on a woman taking hormone replacement therapy, which remains controversial due to its connection with breast cancer.  (Why hasn’t HRT been shown to improve cognition thus far?  It may because a combination of estrone and 17a-estradiol is much more effective than the current regimen of estrone and progestin.)

More importantly, there is no guarantee that new neurons will improve a person’s ability to learn and remember or decrease the risk of cognitive decline.  As Barha and Galhea warn, all that new growth might even lead to a sort of jungle effect if not properly integrated.  There are clearly other factors that determine what properties these new cells will have as they mature.  Do some mothers put their new neurons to use more effectively than others?  No one knows whether or how, but the question is fascinating.  (More research is underway in Barha and Galea’s lab.)

What’s clear is that motherhood results in permanent changes in the brain.  Will we mothers someday benefit cognitively more than childless women from new hormonal therapies? There’s a chance.  Wouldn’t it be marvelous if a cognitive boost later in life would compensate for all the sleepless nights now?

*If you like this blog, click here for previous posts. If you wish, check out my new book,  Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies?: The Surprising Science of Pregnancy. 






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