Category: science

IQ and Fish, the Whole Fish, and Nothing But the Fish

Posted in news, parenting, pregnancy, psychology, science, Sweeter Babies by jenapincott on August 30, 2011

For the nine-plus months of pregnancy, I dutifully downed fish oil pills. I had heard all about the virtues of essential fatty acids (especially DHA, docosahexaenoic acid), known collectively as omega-3s, which are found in fish such as salmon and sardines. These fats are involved in the development of new neurons and help form the cell walls — the structural support — of nerve cells. If the healthy brain is like a sponge, then the brain deprived of omega-3 is like a puddle.

Several years ago, in 2007, an enormous study funded by the National Institute of Health looked at the link between children’s scores on aptitude tests (at ages 6 months to 8 years) and their mother’s prenatal consumption of fish. It turned out that the kids whose moms ate fish more than twice weekly during pregnancy were significantly less likely to have low scores on cognitive tests. Low maternal seafood intake (two or fewer servings weekly) was also associated with increased risk of suboptimum outcomes for prosocial behavior, fine motor, communication, and social development scores. This was a huge deal. The nearly 12,000 expectant women who participated in the study were asked to record how much whole fish they ate, not fish oil supplements.

Naturally, this study — and smaller studies like it involving whole-fish consumption — inspired millions of pregnant women to focus on fish oil.

Problem is, not many of us want to or can afford to eat fish every day. Fears of mercury and PCB contamination are valid (many varieties of fish, such as tuna, have high levels that are toxic to fetuses). It’s not much of a stretch to say that fish oil pills are a better way to get your daily DHA.

But here’s the interesting part. Everyone has assumed that when it comes to omega-3 fatty acids like DHA, the source — whole fish or fish oil pills –shouldn’t matter.  Seems reasonable, but is it?

A few very recent fish oil studies cast doubt:

Results of fish oil pill supplementation range from neutral to negative…

A review of six clinical trials (1280 women in total) involving fish oil pill supplementation during breastfeeding found no significant difference in children’s neurodevelopment: language development (intelligence or problem-solving ability, psychomotor development, motor development. In child attention there was a significant difference. For child visual acuity there was no significant difference.  For language development at 12 to 24 months and at five years in child attention, weak evidence was found (one study) favouring the supplementation.

• At the Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Adelaide, Australia, researchers tracked the children of 2400 women who took DHA-rich fish oil pills in the last trimester of pregnancy. The use of these fish oil capsules compared with vegetable oil cap- sules during pregnancy did not result in improved cognitive and language development in their offspring during early childhood.

Other fish oil pill studies found disturbingly negative results:

• At the Universities of Copenhagen and Chapel Hill, researchers followed 120 Danish women who nursed their babies for four months after birth and took fish oil supplements (or olive oil pills). The children were tested in intervals up to seven years. The higher the early intake, the lower the child scored in speed of information processing, inhibitory control, and working memory tests. Boys whose mothers consumed fish oil had lower prosocial scores relative to the olive oil group.

Meanwhile, these recent studies strengthened the evidence that eating fish is brain-boosting:

• In a study that took place the Arctic, 154 11-year-old Inuit children took standardized tests for memory and verbal learning. Their scores were compared with their levels of DHA present in their cord blood at birth. Children who had higher cord plasma concentrations of DHA at birth achieved significantly higher scores on tests related to recognition memory processing. The source of DH in their mothers’ diets was fish and marine mammals. Intriguingly, the connection with higher test scores remained intact regardless of seafood-contaminant (PCB and mercury) amounts.

* A UK study of 217 nine-year-olds whose mothers had eaten oily fish in early pregnancy had a reduced risk of hyperactivity and children whose mothers had eaten fish (whether oily or non-oily) in late pregnancy had a verbal IQ that was 7.55 points higher than those whose mothers did not eat fish.

This is what I’d love to see: large studies that compare pregnant/nursing fish-eaters versus pill-poppers. Few researchers have tackled this, in part because we assume DHA works the same no matter how we get it, and because DHA from sources other than pills is difficult to measure or isolate.  Interestingly,  a study at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health compared height, weight and head circumference results of newborns whose mothers whose main source of DHA was fish versus pills.  They found that fish-eaters generally gave birth to larger babies while fish-oil-pill-poppers had newborns with a smaller head circumference.

Is it possible that fish consumption boosts IQ, but fish oil pills do not?

It’s dumbfounding, the difference in results between whole fish and fish oil. The researchers that found negative results of supplementation on nursing infants speculated on what goes wrong. It may be that early intervention with fish oil pills results in an “environmental mismatch” between prenatal and postnatal life,” (e.g. the fetus is “programmed” in the womb to live in an environment without abundant DHA and is thrown off when inundated with these fats later on).

Another theory is that the timing in these recent fish oil pill studies is off. The critical period in which fish oil may influence brain growth may be in the first trimester of pregnancy or toward the end of the first year of life — not during the time periods in which women in these studies were taking fish oil pills. It may be that DHA has a “sweet spot” — an optimum level below and above which may be detrimental to the developing brain. Indeed, when researchers look at fish oil pill supplementation and DHA-deficient premature infants, the results are much rosier.

There’s another compelling explanation of why fish oil pills don’t yield the desired results: DHA doesn’t do its magic alone. Nutrients and proteins in fish and seafood, other than DHA, may be  brain-boosters — or at least help us (and our fetuses or babies) to absorb or metabolize DHA better. All the fish oil in the sea can’t compensate for a bad diet.

In the US, a federal advisory recommends that pregnant women not eat more than two servings of fish weekly. This advice may be misguided given that fish such as salmon and sardines are high in DHA but low in mercury. Pop fish oil pills instead; they’re just as good– that’s been the message. But these recent studies point to a different truth.

Thus the case for fish, the whole fish, and nothing but the fish.

Food for thought.

*If you like this blog, click here for previous posts and here to read a description of my most recent book, Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes?, on the science behind love, sex, and attraction. If you wish, check out my forthcoming book, Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies?: The Surprising Science of Pregnancy. 

 

Do Beautiful Babies Become the Most Beautiful Adults?

Posted in pregnancy, psychology, science by jenapincott on August 18, 2011

The Gerber baby, then and now

Forgive me, I believe my one-year-old is the cutest baby ever. Yes, yes, mothers are biased about their own children.  As I detail in my new book, certain reward circuits “light up” in parental brains only when looking at their own offspring.  But objectively — objectively! — my daughter is adorable.

The little one has “Gerber baby” features:  a bulbous forehead, big eyes, luscious cheeks and thighs (and curls). Babies with these qualities are rated as cuter than those with sunken foreheads, small eyes, and large or long chins.  Adults smile and gaze longer at them. Attractive infants are perceived to be more sociable, easier to care for, and more competent than their homely peers. They inhibit aggression in adult men. They receive more nurture.

Our baby thrills to the attention, and my husband and I have started to worry that being cute might not lead to anything good.  I have a theory that ugly ducklings and tomboys grow up to have richer inner lives.  I don’t want a princess.

We want to know:  Do the cutest babies turn out to be the most attractive adults?

Conveniently, a recent study by psychologists Gordon Gallup Jr, Marissa Hamilton, and their colleagues addresses this very question. (I love these whimsical studies; they’re motivated by genuine curiosity.) The presumption is that physical attractiveness remains stable over time.  This has been proven in childhood onward:  attractive ten-year-olds are likelier to be attractive adults.  (Another study found that adult attractiveness can be predicted as early as age five).  But until now no study had tracked attractiveness from infancy.

It’s interesting, how the psychologists went about it.   They sifted through high school yearbooks and found forty graduating seniors who featured photos of themselves as infants. Then they asked several hundred college students to rate the the individuals — in infancy and in adulthood — for attractiveness.

The upshot?

There was no correlation between attractiveness in infancy and (young) adulthood. Some ugly ducklings turned into swans, some baby swans become ugly ducks.  Some gawky, awkward babies remained that way into their senior year of high school.  And some beautiful babies kept their glow through the years. This was true of males and females alike.  Cuteness — or homeliness — in infancy does not predict future attractiveness.

The study included an interesting side finding:  While the raters were likely to agree about which infants were attractive, they often disagreed about which eighteen-year-olds made the cut. Why? The gold standard of baby beauty — the forehead, the eyes, the thighs — is universal. These preferences are hard-wired in us to elicit care and protection, while the perception of adult beauty is tempered by culture.

Cute babies are universal positives.  In this light, it’s OK that mine gets attention now.  The future will be much less predictable.

 

 *If you like this blog, click here for previous posts and here to read a description of my most recent book, Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes?, on the science behind love, sex, and attraction. If you wish, check out my forthcoming book, Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies?: The Surprising Science of Pregnancy. 

 

Do You Live Less if Your Mom Was Stressed?

Posted in parenting, pregnancy, psychology, science, sex by jenapincott on August 12, 2011

Not long ago, a handful of scientists at the University of California at Irvine were curious about why some people live longer than others — even within groups that have similar ethnic and educational backgrounds, demographic and disease risk profiles, and are exposed to similar stressors in life.  At heart, they know the question is impossible to answer.  People are complex. The effects of life events on our genes—what we eat, what we breathe, who we love and how well we’re loved, and so on —are impossible to isolate.

But the scientists had a hunch that some of us had a bad start —beginning in the womb — because our mothers were highly stressed during pregnancy.   There’s an avalanche of evidence that women who are under extreme duress in pregnancy have kids who have shorter attention spans, lower IQ, memory deficiencies, and health problems.  

Could prenatal stress also set a baby’s life expectancy clock to tick faster?

One way to find out is to look at the genes of people whose mothers were extremely stressed during pregnancy. In each of our cells are DNA-protein complexes called telomeres, which cap the end of chromosomes.  Telomeres are like the plastic bit at the end of a shoelace to keep it from unraveling. Each time a cell divides, they become a little shorter. This makes telomeres something of a longevity marker. People with long tips at the end of their DNA strands tend to live longer than people who have short tips.  It doesn’t matter how long your shoelace is; what counts is the integrity of the cap.

In the UCI study, researchers recruited volunteers in their twenties. Some were selected because their mothers experienced a horrid event during pregnancy.  The scientists weren’t looking for the normal pregnancy stressors — work-life balance, weight gain, fretting about the baby’s health, and so on. They meant extreme stressors: a sudden divorce, a death in the family, a natural disaster, and physical or emotional abuse.

What they found is disturbing.

Compared to the control group (whose moms had a relatively stress-free pregnancy), people exposed to their moms’ extreme prenatal stress had significantly shorter telomeres.  By our mid-twenties, most of us lose about 60 base pairs of telomere length annually.  Not so of people who were exposed to extreme prenatal stress — they lose drastically more telomere length each year. The men had 178 fewer base pairs on average (equivalent to 3.5 additional years of aging).  Women had a shocking 295 base-pair deficit  (5 years of accelerated aging). It seems that a mother’s prenatal stress hits her daughter harder than her son.

How does this happen?  During pregnancy, stress may alter blood flow, oxygen, and glucose metabolism between mother and baby. High levels of the stress hormone cortisol from the mother flood the placental barrier. Excess cortisol may also slow down in the production of telomerase, an enzyme that acts as a repair kit for telomeres. Telomerase adds telomeric DNA to shortened telomeres. It regenerates our cells and tissues.  Like a fountain of youth, telomerase gives back what time takes away.

So what if you’re on a telomerase-less trajectory?

Here’s the big relief:  Your clock doesn’t have to keep ticking so quickly, even if it has been set that way before birth. There’s strong evidence that lifestyle changes can amp up telomerase production. One study found that stress management, counseling, and a healthy diet are associated with higher telomerase activity.  Another found that meditation turns up the telomerase dial.  

In the research community there’s much interest in the idea that, by maintaining our telomeres, gene therapy might someday reverse or prevent aging if started early enough.  Is it possible? As a measure to conceal the abuses of youth, teens could freebase on telomerase. 

Oh, the ways to stress out Mom.

 

 *If you like this blog, click here for previous posts and here to read a description of my most recent book, Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes?, on the science behind love, sex, and attraction. If you wish, check out my forthcoming book, Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies?: The Surprising Science of Pregnancy. 

 

Assorted Trifles (from the science of love, sex, and babies)

Posted in news, parenting, pregnancy, psychology, science, sex by jenapincott on August 4, 2011

Research is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to find. An assortment of studies on love, sex, and babies — fresh from the lab.

Scientists found that men whose ring fingers are longer than their index fingers are likelier to have longer-than-average penises, at least among Korean men whose flaccid genitals were stretched under anesthesia. Studying the files of women who were raped in 1999-2006, French researchers discovered that there were fewer incidences of living sperm than in rape victims in previous generations, which supports the theory that sperm quality is declining. Women are likelier to get pregnant if they ovulate from their right-side ovary, visible by ultrasound, especially after two consecutive left-side cycles, inspiring women undergoing fertility treatment to desire a L-L-R pattern. Among women whose fetuses inexplicably died in third trimester, 64 percent (392/614) had a premonition before their doctors told them. They described a feeling of discomfort, of a strange unease; that they understood subconsciously that the baby would die. Many described how they dreamed of dead relatives and of death on the night the baby probably died. A recent fMRI study reported that women who had given birth vaginally exhibited greater activation in brain regions involved in the regulation of empathy, arousal, motivation and reward circuits in response to their baby’s cries compared to those who had not. Women who snore loudly and frequently were at high risk for low birth weight (relative risk = 2.6 [95% confidence interval = 1.2-5.4]), and fetal-growth-restricted neonates. The success of an IVF transfer may in part be predicted by how much glucose medium an embryo “eats” on days 4 and 5. On Day 4, female embryos consume significantly more sugar than males.

Publishers Weekly — First Review for Chocolate Lovers!

Posted in book reviews, magazine articles, media, news, parenting, pregnancy, science, sex by jenapincott on

My first review for Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies?, from this week’s Publishers Weekly.

—-

Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies: Exploring the Surprising Science of Pregnancy
Jena Pincott. Free Press, $15 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-4391-8334-2
Science writer Pincott (Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes?) began her research when she was pregnant; her daughter was born during the writing process, and she describes the work as “curiosity -driven,” urging readers to flip to the pages that interest them most. As Pincott negotiates her pregnancy, she explores a wide array of subjects expectant parents will find utterly captivating, drawing from studies in evolutionary psychology, biology, social science, neuroscience, reproductive genetics, endocrinology, and largely from research in the field of epigenetics, the influence of environment on the behavior of genes. She examines each phase of her own pregnancy, addressing odor and taste aversions (the “gag list”), vivid dreams, how diet affects a gene’s behavior, and a wealth of other subjects. She delves into how dads react to pregnancy (many put on weight) and makes the remarkable observation that what grandma ate when pregnant way back when may influence the baby’s future health (“I’m eating for two generations,” she quips). While readers will be entertained and fascinated by this text from start to finish, the concluding chapter, “Lessons from the Lab,” offers expectant mothers a valuable summary of practical research-based tips (moderate stress experienced by mom may actually be good for the fetus; eating a chocolate bar a day may improve baby’s temperament). Pincott writes with humor and vibrancy, bringing science to life.

Do Fish and Coconuts Reverse Prenatal Stress?

Posted in news, parenting, pregnancy, psychology, science by jenapincott on July 22, 2011

Is it any coincidence that the most laidback people I’ve ever met hail from Brazil, land of fish and coconuts?  

The mellowness of Brazilians came to mind when I read a study on prenatal stress to be published next month in the International Journal of Neurodevelopmental Medicine. The researchers, including lead author Carlos Galduróz, are biologists at  Universidade Federal de São Paulo (in Brazil).

It’s been long known that significant prenatal stress — characterized by a blitz of  the stress hormone cortisol — harms a fetus. Prenatal stress results in an increased risk of premature birth and low birthweight.  In humans, it’s linked with anxiety, attention deficit disorder, impaired memory, low test scores in childhood, and depressive behavior in adulthood.  Rats whose mothers are exposed to extreme stressors are likelier to have impaired motor skills and are slower to learn.

Intriguingly, there’s evidence that the mother’s diet might offset some of these disadvantages.  A baby whose stressed-out mom ate “special” foods during pregnancy and lactation may fare better than one whose equally stressed -out mom ate a normal diet. 

Galduróz and his colleagues were curious to know if the composition of fat in a prenatal diet might make the difference. So, during the equivalent of second and third trimester, they subjected some of the rats in their study to extreme stress — restraint and bright lights for forty-finve minutes, three times daily.  Some of these pregnant rats were fed a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids, the kind found in salmon, sardines, and other fish. Others were fed a diet high in saturated fatty acid from coconut milk. A third group ate normal rat chow.

The results?

As expected, babies of stressed-out moms had lower birth weights.  The surprise came three weeks later:  Babies whose moms ate fish oil or coconut fat diets during pregnancy and lactation gained weight quickly. So quickly, in fact, that they became the same weight as the babies whose moms weren’t stressed during pregnancy.  In other words, fish and coconut fats reversed the impact of low birthweight, a potentially dangerous effect of prental stress.

That’s not all.

Babies exposed to prenatal stress were more active (restless) than other pups if their moms were on a regular or coconut-oil diet.  Interestingly, if a stressed-out mother was on a fish oil diet, her pups were not more restless than those of pups with non-stressed moms.

In an earlier study by the same authors, adult rats whose moms ate a coconut fat or fish oil-based diet released fewer stress hormones (a reduced corticosteroid response) than rats whose moms ate a normal diet.

Many studies have shown that fish oil, omega-3s, modulate mood by reducing the stress response. This has been shown in rat studies, and also in many (but not all) human studies.  Is it possible that when a mother consumes food containing omega-3s, her babies are less agitated? Are they happier?  Of course, rodents express anxiety, neuroticism, and depression differently from human babies.  But the healing effect of nutrients is fascinating.  Do stressed-out moms on fish-and-coconut diets have happier, healthier babies than their equally stressed peers who don’t eat as well?

For the real possibility that  fish and coconut oil have prenatal physical and psychological perks, I link to a favorite recipe here. It’s for moqueca, a stew made of fish and coconut fats, from Bahia, the Coconut Coast of Brazil.

 *If you like this blog, click here for previous posts and here to read a description of my most recent book, Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes?, on the science behind love, sex, and attraction. If you wish, check out my forthcoming book, Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies?: The Surprising Science of Pregnancy. 

 

 

Do Flame Retardants Make Us Dimmer?

Posted in parenting, pregnancy, psychology, science by jenapincott on July 6, 2011

When I was in the second trimester of pregnancy, my husband and I bought a new king-sized mattress.  Like all cotton mattresses sold in the U.S., ours had been treated with a flame retardant containing polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and/or organohalogen compounds (OHCs). Flame retardants are also in pillows, car and airplane seats, drapes, rugs, and insulation. They’re in electronic equipment, like TVs, and in the dust on top of TVs.  They’re in air and soil and breast milk.  Almost all humans have flame retardants flowing through their veins.

             Around the same time I got my new mattress (on which I tossed and turned in third trimester), two surprising studies were published on the effects of flame retardants on fetuses and young children.

Study #1

A group of researchers at the University of Gronigden in the Netherlands recruited nearly 70 pregnant women in third trimester, taking samples of their blood and measuring it for PBDEs and OHCs. Five years later, the children were given standardized developmental tests for motor skills (balance and coordination), cognition (intelligence, spatial skills, control, verbal memory, and attention), and behavior.

The result:  PBDEs were correlated with worse performance on fine motor tasks and a shortened attention span.  Strikingly, they were also linked with better coordination and visual perception, as well as better (more placid?) behavior.  OHCs, meanwhile, were correlated with worse fine motor skills. Oddly, these kids had better visual perception.

 Study #2

 Researchers at Columbia University tested for PBDEs in the cord blood of nearly 400 women who delivered their babies at a New York City hospital.  These children were given mental and motor development tests in infancy and, later, at four-to-six years. These tests measure memory, problem solving, habituation, language, mathematical concept formation, and object constancy.  They also assess ability to manipulate hands and fingers and control and coordinate their movements.

 The result:  At both age intervals, children who had higher cord blood concentrations of PBDEs scored significantly lower on tests of mental (lower IQ) and motor development.  This was particularly evident at age two for motor skills and age four for IQ (nearly 8 points lower for certain PBDEs).

 

            Are flame retardants slowing us down? Correlation is not causation, but there’s a real risk that they do — and researchers have some ideas about how these chemicals have a toxic effects on the brain. OHCs (for instance) have been found to decrease a fetus’s production of thyroid hormone by interfering with thyroid receptors. This leads to an increase in thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). Brain development in the fetus relies on the precise timing and quantity of thyroid hormone; too much or too little causes developmental delays. High prenatal exposure to TSH is associated with lower IQs – 4 points less on average.  During critical developmental periods, PBDEs and OHCs may also have a toxic effect on neurons in the hippocampus, the memory region of the brain, by reducing the number of neurotrasnmitter receptors.

            Infants and toddlers have what researchers call a high “body burden” of flame retardants. Household dust, which floor-playing infants and toddlers encounter constantly, accounts for 80-93 percent of postnatal PBDE exposure, followed by breast milk (however, the benefits of nursing appear to outweigh this drawback; breastfed babies score higher on neurodevelopmental tests). 

            A disturbing fact is that American kids have levels of PCBEs that are 10 to 1,000 times higher than their peers in Europe or Asia. We produce 1.2 billion pounds of the stuff annually. (Interestingly, the Scandivanian study, whose subjects had lower levels of prenatal exposure, found no IQ deficit while the U.S. study did.) Consider our nation’s problems:  attention deficit disorder, placidity, lower standardized test scores in reading and math.

Are flame retardants making kids dimmer?

            The question fires up the imagination.  Should pregnant women be advised to avoid, say, dusting and buying new mattresses in the same way we avoid emptying the litter box (to avoid toxoplasmosis)? Are the perceived gains in visual perception real, and, if so, why, and do they come at the expense of other abilities? Are urban kids at a higher risk  than average? Are there naturally flame-retardant materials that we can use in lieu of chemicals?   More research, especially on American kids, is warranted.

            After all, the nightmare scenarios can keep an expectant mom up all night, tossing and turning on her nonflammable mattress.

 

 * If you wish, check out my forthcoming book, Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies: The Surprising Science of Pregnancy. 

 

WAAROM VROUWEN CHOCOLA LEKKERDER VINDEN DAN SEKS

Posted in psychology, science, sex by jenapincott on July 4, 2011


The new Dutch mass market edition of Blondes (retitled, in loose translation, “Why Women Prefer Chocolate to Sex”)

The Real Purpose of Eyebrows?

Posted in psychology, science by jenapincott on

Human faces are relatively flat. Alas, evolution has flattened the jutting jaw and the bulging brow ridge. 

Fortunately, we still have one reliable landmark:  the eyebrow.

According to a study by MIT behavioral neuroscientist Javid Sadr and his colleagues, eyebrows have remained because they are crucial to facial identification. Faces without eyebrows are like land without landmarks.

The study:  Volunteers were asked to identify fifty famous faces, including that of former U.S. president Richard Nixon and actor Winona Ryder.  The photos were digitally altered and displayed either without eyebrows or without eyes. When celebrities lacked eyes, subjects could recognize them nearly 60 percent of the time.  However, when celebrities lacked eyebrows, subjects recognized them only 46 percent of time.

The lesson:  eyebrows are crucial to facial identity — they’re at least as important as your eyes, if not more so.  If you put colored contacts in your eyes, pumped collagen into your lips, or put on a pair of funky sunglasses, people would probably still recognize you easily.  But try shaving off your eyebrows. Chances are that everyone will say they didn’t recognize you at first glance.

As Sadr points out, eyebrows pop out against the backdrop of your face — and for that reason not only identify who you are but how you’re feeling. Along with the lips, they may in fact be the most expressive part of your body. The single raised eyebrow is a universal sign of skepticism, and the dual raised eyebrow a sign of surprise.

The shape of your eyebrows also reveals, in a glance, a lot about your age and other characteristics.  Bushy, gnarly, salt-and-pepper brows:  older apha males. Thin, graceful arcs:  young, stylish women.  Sparse, light brows:  youths.  Waxed and tweezed, the brow can advertise good grooming.

Eyebrows sometimes meet each other halfway across the bridge of the nose, especially on men, to form a monobrow, which resembles the vanished browridge of our primate ancestors.  Distinctive? Yes, and also brow-raising.

 *This entry was previously published on this blog. If you wish, also check out my forthcoming book, Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies: The Surprising Science of Pregnancy. 

Are Extroverts That Way Because of Their Fathers?

Posted in parenting, psychology, science by jenapincott on June 24, 2011

All babies demand their parents’ attention. But how many 11-month-olds demand the attention of strangers, too? Ours does. We bring her to restaurants and she scans the room until she catches someone’s eye. My husband will pick her up and carry her over to her admirer, whom he’ll chat up. Dad’s a socialite, Baby’s a socialite. Mom reaches into her bag and pulls out a book.

You might think your baby’s social confidence depends on the usual mix of genes and environment. This is true, but it might not be the whole truth. There’s also evidence that children rely more on their father’s social signals than their mother’s. That is, socially confident dads may have more socially confident kids. Socially anxious fathers may have more socially anxious kids. It matters less whether Mom is a social butterfly or a bookworm.

The bulk of the research on paternal influence on sociability comes from Susan Bogels, a professor in Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Amsterdam, and her colleague Enrico Perotti. In a recent review, Bogels and Perotti draw on research that suggests a dominant paternal role in their children’s sociability, including:

In one study, 9-11-year-olds were asked to imagine themselves in a series of stories involving strangers, while their mother and father responded in a socially anxious or socially confident way. Children who had socially anxiety were more influenced by their father’s reaction more than their mother’s.

A study of boys with behavioral problems, including social anxiety, found that fathering, but not mothering, predicted the children’s level of inhibition. In another study, secure infant-father attachment, but not infant-mother attachment, predicted stranger sociability among toddlers.

• Among kids enrolled in treatment for social anxiety, those whose fathers had high levels of social anxiety had a worse outcome (were more socially anxious) than those whose mothers had it. Socially anxious mothers are not as likely as socially anxious fathers to make their kids less sociable.

So here’s the mystery: Why would fathers, who have less to do with childrearing than mothers, have more influence on their children’s sociabilty?

It’s an interesting question, and Bogels and Perotti have an interesting answer. “In the course of human history,” they write, “fathers specialized in external protection (e.g. confronting the external world outside the clan or extended family), while mothers provided internal protection (e.g. providing comfort and food). Therefore, children may be hardwired to respond more to their father’s signals about the social world than the mother’s, and adjust their behavior accordingly.

Through the ages, it benefited children to rely more on their father’s than mother’s cues about whether unfamiliar people are generally hostile or cooperative. Of course, gender roles have long since changed – moms go out into the world every day and meet strangers – but our instincts haven’t.

So the lesson here is that fathers orient their children outward, mothers inward. When researchers observed a group of toddlers taking swimming lessons, they took note of where the parents stood. Mothers protectively stood in front of their babies, encouraging face-to-face interaction with them. Fathers stood in back, so that their children would face their social environment.

∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞

Bogel and Perotti’s review includes a fascinating aside about paternal roughhousing and its effect on children’s social confidence. Rough-and-tumble play – I think of my husband tossing our infant in the air, spinning her around, throwing her over his shoulder, as she giggles and squeals- gets a scientific seal of approval.

Here’s why. Kids learn to associate physiological arousal – a racing heart, tight chest, spinning head – with fun instead of fear, which crosses over into other social interaction. Roughhousing also involves behavior – being aggressive, sneaky, teasing, playful – that requires different roles and different responses, and forms a basis for social skills. By pinning kids to the ground, swinging them like sacks of potatoes, attacking them and getting attacked – fathers make their progeny more confident.

∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞

So many questions. If we have evolved so that fathers strongly influence their children’s sociability, what does this mean?

It means that fathers who are socially anxious themselves are likelier to have kids who are not socially confident. If a kid suffers from severe social anxiety, perhaps his or her father should be involved in the kid’s therapy or get therapy himself. But what about kids who don’t have fathers who are involved or live at home? How do mothers compensate? And what about gender? So far there is no evidence that boys are more susceptible to the father’s signals than are girls, but is this really so? And what about other male figures – male teachers, older brothers, uncles, grandfathers – are they equally influential? At what age is paternal influence on sociability strongest? And are paternal genes more influential here too?

Further research is warranted. Until then, we can wonder about the great socialites in history – the Jackie Os, Andy Warhols, Paris Hiltons, Truman Capotes, Gloria Vanderbilts, Nan Kempners, and Ivana Trumps. Did they get it from their dads?

 

 

 

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