Category: science

Where Do Demanding, Unweanable Babies Come From?

Posted in news, parenting, pregnancy, psychology, science by jenapincott on May 24, 2011

A season ago, when my daughter reached the six-month mark, her pediatrician told us to introduce her to a new food every few days and see what she likes. It wasn’t time to wean her, but soon it will be, and supplementation should help the transition. So I lovingly shopped for organic fruits and vegetables: apples, bananas, avocados, peas, and so on. I presented them passively — as items for her to experiment withon her placemat — and actively, by making mmmms, playing airplane, and swallowing the goop and showing her my tongue.

Three months later, we’ve made astonishingly little progress on the solids front. At best, the infant deigns to nibble delicately on peas and lentils. She’ll squish the bits of mango and avocado on her plate and drop them on the floor. She’ll taste a food then whip her head to the other side and bat away the spoon. She wrinkles her nose.

All she really wants to do is nurse. Baby loves to nurse. She cries and cries in the wee hours of the morning because she wants to nurse. She is tall and heavy for her age.

Who’s to blame (at least in part) for her unweanable stubbornness?

Her dad. 

It’s not only convenient to blame the father for babies who won’t give up nursing, It’s scientific.  There’s evidence.    

Here’s how it works, according to a new study Bernard Crespi, an evolutionary biologist at Simon Fraser University.  How much and how long a baby nurses depends in part on her genes. The genes she inherits from her father have an ulterior motive.  Paternal genes want the baby to extract as much as possible from the mother.

Paternal genes are thought to influence:

  • suckling strength  (so the baby extracts as much milk as she can)
  • tongue size (a larger tongue is a better suction pump)
  • crying  (for maternal attention and food)
  • appetite and speed of eating
  • duration of breastfeeding before weaning
  • night-time suckling (results in suppression of periods, which helps delay future pregnancies/siblings)

The genes that influence these behaviors are active only when they come from the dad. This is called genetic imprinting — when only the genes from one parent are expressed. Dad’s genes strongly affect the intensity of infant behavior.  Only a tiny percentage of human genes are imprinted. 

Dad’s genes are greedy for a good reason. From a biological perspective he has nothing to lose by making sure this particular offspring who carries his genes demands a lot of her mom — including suckling often, crying a lot, and taking a long time to wean. This behavior may be essential to a child’s survival in a setting in which resources are limited. “Weaning” genes have been shaped this way under evolutionary pressure in a premonogamous era.

Mom’s genes, meanwhile, are more moderate.  They want the child to survive but dial back the feed controls. They’d prefer for a baby to self-feed and start solids sooner. Mom’s genes push moderation to save resources (time and energy) for her other (or future) offspring. When paternal genes are disabled and maternal genes are active, babies have Prader-Willi syndrome, a condition that manifests as inability to latch and suckle effectively, complacency, and lack of crying or other solicitation for food.  These infants wean early because they never really nurse. They fail to thrive.

Demanding, unweanable infants come from dads. At a minimum, paternal genes play a real role in their aggressive eating, crying, and nursing behaviors.  

Now that they’re outed, perhaps guilty fathers should be the ones to work the night shift and scrape  food off the floor?

How big is your limbal ring?

Posted in news, psychology, science, sex by jenapincott on April 30, 2011

Of all the qualities that give an attractive person an edge, here’s one you’ve likely overlooked:  the limbal ring,  the dark circle around iris.  The limbal ring is the line that separates the colored part of the eye from the white (the sclera).

It’s completely unconscious, the way we all judge one another’s limbal rings. In the 20 milliseconds or so it takes to assess a person’s attractiveness, you’re factoring in the size and shade of the limbal rings. The bigger and blacker they are, the more attractive the eyes. People with the prettiest eyes have the most prominent limbal rings.

This, anyhow, is the upshot of a recent study by Darren Peshek and his colleagues at the Department of Cognitive Science at the University of California at Irvine. The researchers showed volunteers eighty pairs of male and female faces.  Each pair of faces was identical except the eyes: one had dark limbal rings and the other had no limbal rings.  The volunteers were asked to pick which face was more attractive and to indicate their degree of preference.

Men thought women with the dark limbal rings were more attractive than those without, and women thought the same of men with dark limbal rings.  Men and women also judged faces of the same sex as more attractive when the limbal rings were large.

Looking into my baby daughter’s eyes, I see the blue of her iris is framed by a thick black limbal ring.  The contrast makes the white of her eyes so white they look blue. The very young have the thickest, darkest limbal rings.

Which is exactly the point.  The limbal ring serves as an honest signal of youth and health-desirable qualities, reproductively speaking. The ring fades with age and with medical problems.  It’s thickest from infancy through the early twenties.  A thick, dark limbal ring may make us appear younger.  It makes the whites of the eyes whiter.  This might be why so many people think light eyes are so sexy:  the limbal ring, when present, shows up more.

There are so many ways to fake the appearance of youth. You can wear makeup and wigs and get tummy tucks, plastic surgery, Botox, and boob jobs.

But a fake limbal ring?

Yes, this too. Long ago, Japanese schoolgirls discovered the edge a limbal ring can give you by wearing “limbal ring” contact lenses. They make the eye look bigger and more defined. And while you’re eyeing these contacts, you might as well buy a set that expands your pupils too. Big, dark, dilated pupils signal emotional arousal. They, too, act on the unconscious favorably.

The limbal ring is well-named. Limbis means border or edge, and it’s related to limbic, meaning emotion or drives. The limbal ring, seen from inches away, is an intimacy zone. Don’t flirt until you see the whites of their eyes.

Why are Redheads More Sensitive?

Posted in psychology, science by jenapincott on April 16, 2011

Redheads may be hotheads, but they get colder faster. They also bruise more easily. And they feel more pain.

All this comes from a series of studies done in the last few years on people with genes for red hair. A true redhead produces an abundance of a yellow-red pigment called pheomelanin. (Brunettes produce the more common eumelanin, a dark brown pigment.) A redhead’s prodigious pheomelanin output is the result of mutations, or variants, of the MC1R.3 gene. Redheads have two copies of this variant allele, one from each parent.

So what does this “redhead gene” have to do with sensitivity? The same gene is involved in the body’s perception of pain. Edwin Liem, an anesthesiologist at the University of Louisville, suspects that when both copies of the MC1R.3 gene are variants, as they are in redheads, receptors in the nervous system modulate pain more intensely.  It’s also possible, according to Liem, that the redhead version the MC1R gene also directly affects hormones that stimulate pain receptors in the brain.

In one study, Liem and his colleagues compared the pain tolerance of sixty naturally red-haired volunteers with sixty brunettes. The redheads reported that they felt a chilling pain at around 6 degrees C (43 degrees F), unlike the volunteers with dark hair. Brunettes did not feel an aching chill until the temperature approached freezing.

In another experiment, also led by Liem, women with various hair color types were exposed to electric shock. Turns out, the redheads needed about 20 percent more anesthetic to relieve the pain (confirming the common belief among anesthesiologists that redheads are tough to knock out). While redheads have normal blood counts and coagulate blood the same as anyone else, they bruise more easily. Yet another study found that redheads are more than twice as likely as women with other hair colors to fear and avoid the dentist.

These studies have been done on women only, and it’s unknown whether red-haired men would have the same outcome. (However, there’s evidence that pain pathways differ between the sexes.)

Redheads are stereotyped as being hot-headed, tempestuous, dramatic, high-strung. Is it possible that a genetic sensitivity to pain can affect temperament? It’s fun to speculate. For some, physical pain may translate into emotional pain. Sensitivity may tip over into volatility. Could a fiery, short temper even be a pain avoidance mechanism? Why not–after all, a good offense can be the best defense.


Why are Men Mad About Mammaries?

Posted in news, psychology, science, sex by jenapincott on April 3, 2011

Why do men love breasts?

Let me count the theories:

1. Freudian (breasts remind men of their moms and the nurturing of childhood)
2. Evolutionary (breasts resemble buttocks, and prehuman ancestors always mounted from behind)
3. Reproductive (breasts are an indicator of age, and big breasts in particular are a marker of high estrogen levels, associated with fertility).

Do these reasons sufficiently explain why breasts are beloved — even in cultures that don’t eroticize them any more than the face?

If not, here’s another:

Breasts facilitate “pair-bonding” between couples. Men evolved to love breasts because women are likelier to have sex with — and/or become attached to — lovers who handle their breasts.

This idea came up in New York Times journalist John Tierney’s interview with Larry Young, a neuroscientist famous for his research on monogamy. According to Young, “[M]ore attention to breasts could help build long-term bonds through a ‘cocktail of ancient neuropeptides,’ like the oxytocin released during foreplay or orgasm.”

The same oxytocin circuit, he notes, is activated when a woman nurses her infant.

When women’s breasts are suckled, as they are during breastfeeding, the hormone oxytocin is released. Oxytocin makes the mother feel good and helps her bond with her baby. She feels loving and attached. The same reaction might happen if a man sucks and caresses a woman’s breasts during foreplay. In our ancestral past, the most titillated men may have been the ones to attract and retain mates and pass on their genes.

The “boobs-help-bonding” theory may not be the strongest explanation of why men love breasts, but it’s worth introducing to the debate. That said, there are many ladies out there for whom a lover’s suckling does nothing — and there are many breast-ogling boobs who know nothing of foreplay.

What Singles Can Learn from Baby Talk

Posted in news, psychology, science by jenapincott on March 28, 2011

When you become a new parent you get a lot of advice on how to connect with your infant. To win her over, you’re told, talk the way she talks.  If Baby says “bah-bah-bah,” you say, “bah-bah-bah” back. You can make your “bah” sound like a real word by saying BAH-tel” or “BAH-th.” The content doesn’t really matter.  You just need make sure you sound like her.  Researchers call this “language style matching.” It draws the infant in and helps her connect with you. Experts can predict a baby’s attachment to her mother by how much they bah-bah back and forth during baby talk.

            Singles seeking love and connection can learn from this, according to a new study led by James Pennebaker and Molly Ireland at the University of Texas at Austin, and their colleagues at Northwestern University.  What the psychologists investigated is whether people on a first date who use similar words hit it off better than those who don’t.  Could language style predict whether you and your date will decide to see each other again and even have a strong and stable relationship eventually?

            To find out, the researchers recorded college students on speed dates. Thrown together for four-minute pairings, the men and women warmed up by asking each other the usual questions:  Where are you from?  What’s your major? How do you like college?

 Using a computer algorithm to analyze the speed-daters’ conversations, Pennebaker and Ireland found that men and women that wanted to see each other again matched each other’s function words significantly more often than those that had no interest in each other. Function words are like glue. They are not nouns or words; rather, they show how those words relate.  They are words like the, a, be, anything, that, will, him, and well. They are the yeses and okays and the pauses and interjections between words. They are the ifs, ands, and buts. By themselves they don’t sound like much, but they set a mood.

            The more a couple’s language styles matched, especially the function words, the likelier they were to hit it off. Couple whose speaking styles were in sync more than average were nearly four times as likely to desire a second date as those that were not.  About 77 percent of similar-sounding speed-daters desired a second date compared to only about half the dissimilar speakers.  Similar-speakers were also significantly more likely to be dating three months later.

            Language style matching is usually unconscious, according to the researchers.  It’s verbal body language.  Just as couples on the most successful dates make more eye contact, lean in toward one another, and otherwise echo each other’s body movements, they also echo each other’s choice of words.  We put ourselves in sync with people with whom we want to get close and stay close. 

Pennebaker and his team also used the alogrithm to test written correspondence for language style, and found that couples who had been dating a year or more were likelier to stay together if their writing styles in text messages matched. 

You can predict if you and your date or partner are in sync by taking Pennebakers’s online test at http://www.utpsyc.org/synch/.   Enter your and your love’s email or text correspondence and you’ll get a number that assesses how much your language matches up — which in turn may predict how well your relationship will hold up.

**
If you and your partner use actual baby talk to communicate — that is, speaking in a high-pitched voice with elongated syllables to your ickle-bitty-peshus wuv –you may have an especially healthy long-term relationship. According to a study by researchers Meredith Bombar and Lawrence Littig, baby talk helps lovers enhance feelings of mutual intimacy and attachment to each other.  Compared to other couples, babytalkers are more secure and less avoidant in romantic relationships.

Why?  In effect, baby talk, when mutual, is not only a form of language style matching but also a way to reactivate primal circuits of attachment. It taps into the unconditional love of a parent for child.

The old “play” circuits are activated; as in any form of fantasy, baby talk allows a couple to step outside the limits of self, space, and time. Stress is reduced — the same reason why a recent study on light S&M found that couples who spank together stay together. Babytalking lovers get a blast of dopamine and oxytocin in areas of the brain involved in reward and bonding — the ventral tegmental area, orbitofrontal cortex, and anterior cingulate cortex.

Mutual use of high-pitched voices, soothing whispers, cooing, lisping, and making expressive faces is also a way of “looping” or “mirroring” affection. Along with the other bonding benefits, baby talk may be a way of flaunting one’s healthy emotional neural circuitry — suggesting not only love and commitment but also strong nurturing instincts.

Do babytalking couples make better parents?  Who knows — but secure, loving, long-term ones do.

Do Brothers Stall Their Sisters’ Sex Lives?

Posted in parenting, psychology, science by jenapincott on March 20, 2011

Nearly eight months ago I gave birth to a baby girl. The child is now a seam-popping twenty-plus pounds. Infants, they grow so quickly it’s creepy — my thoughts fast-forward through her teething years to the teens, and I’m terrified. Problem is, my family lives in New York City where children want to be adults. The weenies of tweens should stay in their jeans, but all too often they don’t.

The onset of girls’ sexual maturity depends a lot on the social environment — peers, culture, and so on. A recent study by Australian behavioral ecologists Fritha Milne and Debra Judge found that it especially depends on the family environment, and not in the expected ways of curfews and chastity pledges. Sure, if you’re a teenage girl your parents might hold you back from trying to lose your virginity. So may your grandparents and any other authority figure in your family.

But so might your little brother.

Milne and Judge recruited nearly two hundred women and seventy-six men, all living in or around the city of Perth, Australia, and asked them questions about their family lives and sexual development. The results were that girls with only younger brothers lost their virginity an average of more than a year later (at age 18.3) than girls with younger sisters only. Girls with both younger brothers and sisters lost it nearly two years later on average (age 19.3) than girls with no younger siblings. Younger sisters alone had no impact.

The chastity effect only applied to girls with younger brothers. Having a big brother (or sister) didn’t make a girl any less likely to hold onto her virginity, yet another strange pattern emerged. This one involved the girls’ physical maturity.

The more older brothers a girl had, the later she got her first period. Girls with only elder brothers got their first visit from “Aunt Flo” up to a year later (at age 13.6) than girls with older sisters or no older siblings (age 12.7). (This is meaningful given that breast cancer and other conditions are related to earlier menstruation.)

Elder brothers delay physiological maturation, while younger brothers delay behavioral maturation.

What’s going on?

Trained as behavioral ecologists, Milne and Judge took a look at the big picture. Daughters are often caregivers. Historically, as has been found in traditional societies, a woman with daughters as first- or second-born children has a larger family than a mom whose first children were sons. Elder daughters take care of younger siblings, which frees up Mom to keep popping them out. Boys historically required more resources than do girls, which made big sister’s contributions even more important. As a result, these helpful elder daughters experience a delay in starting their own families. In the modern world where women don’t usually start their families until their mid-twenties on average, this is no problem, but in the past females with brothers may have had fewer children over their lifetimes.

The bigger mystery is what’s actually behind Big- and Little Brother’s stalling effect on their sisters’ sexuality. This is unknown territory, so Milne and Judge tread lightly here. The safest theory is that the delays are behavioral. Girls with little brothers lose their virginity later because they’re too busy taking care of their siblings to have love lives of their own. Perhaps little brothers, who are slower than female siblings to develop and reach puberty, keep their elder sisters in a more childish mindset. Or perhaps the stress of care-giving slows down puberty.

The researchers should also consider a much more surprising yet equally plausible theory: brothers send out chemical cues (pheromones) in their sweat that inhibit their sisters’ sexual development. Odd as it sounds, this would explain the perplexing finding that girls with older brothers get their first periods later than their peers. And, it appears, so do girls who grow up with their biological fathers in the household, compared to their peers with absent dads. Several studies, including here and here and a large one at Penn State that involved over nineteen hundred college students, came to this conclusion. (Interestingly, the same study found that girls growing up in homes with males unrelated to them got their periods earlier than average.)

The sweat-stifles-sexuality theory isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. Other animals — rodents, for instance — use pheromones to modulate sexual maturity and fertility in a population. Over the years, a girl would inhale chemical cues in fraternal sweat — think of all those sock and armpit odors. Those chemicals would hit the hypothalamus of her brain where sex hormones are produced, and slow down the works. Puberty strikes a little later. Evolutionarily speaking, the result is that a girl could stay in the family nest longer without conflict. The risk of incest is reduced.

So should I try for son now? Truth is, the data applies to populations, not individuals. There are no guarantees; these are just interesting findings that deserve more research. Moreover, I’m in over my head right now with my baby girl’s teething and feeding challenges. Sure, I’ll want preserve her girlhood for longer than a New York minute. But I also need to preserve my sanity

 

Do baby tears have mind-control properties?

Posted in news, psychology, science, sex by jenapincott on March 8, 2011

A few weeks ago, Israeli neuroscientists Shani Gelstein and Noam Sobel published a study about mind-control properties in human tears. The gist of the research, which enjoyed much media attention, is that women’s tears contain a chemical signal that reduces sexual desire in men. Tears were collected from the cheeks of emotionally-distraught women watching sad films and wiped on the upper lips of male volunteers. Compared to men who whiffed a salt solution control, the tear-sniffers not only had a reduced sex drive but also lower testosterone levels and reduced brain activity.

A leading explanation is that chemicals in tears generally reduce male aggression, making them more sympathetic.

How does this work? One theory is that one or more of the hundreds of chemicals in tears has “mind-control” properties, triggering specific predictable behaviors in others. (Here and here I write about how this happens in sweat, too.) One candidate is prolactin, a hormone associated with bonding. When inhaled in a person’s tears, prolactin may affect the sniffer’s hypothalamus, the part of the brain that produces hormones which in turn affect behavior.

Baby tears have not been the subject of a study yet (hopefully soon). But it’s not a far cry from certain that if there are chemicals in the tears of women that affect men, there are also chemical triggers in the tears of babies that affect their caregivers or anyone else that comes into contact with them. These tears may trigger care-giving instincts and reduce aggression toward the screaming infant.

I wonder: Infant abuse is relatively uncommon given how irritating a screaming baby can be. Are the people guilty of this crime more likely to be amnosiacs (loss of smell-sense) or have another form of brain damage that would prevent them from inhaling aggression-reducing signals in the baby’s tears?

Another theory: Kids cry all the time and sometimes it’s hard to tell when they really need attention. Might chemicals in emotional tears direct parents to respond appropriately when there is a real need for attention? Assume these chemical signals are only in emotional tears–not crocodile tears or sleepy-time tears. Do they help us intuitively know when it’s OK to let a child cry it out instead of rushing to soothe her?

What your date’s fingerprints reveal

Posted in news, psychology, science, sex by jenapincott on February 6, 2011

Not long ago, people everywhere started to do the “finger game” on a first date. This is not as naughty as it sounds. As I describe in BLONDES, the finger game involves asking your companion for a look at his (or her) right hand. If his ring finger is longer than his index finger it’s a sign of prenatal exposure to high levels of testosterone. People with longer ring (than index) fingers are likelier to be more aggressive, better at sports, and more musically inclined. They may have more sex partners in life.

Now you can take the game to the next level: fingerprints.

Take a close look at the ridges on your companion’s fingers. (Actually, they’re best seen under a magnifying lens or photocopied and enlarged.) Most people have slightly more ridges on the fingers of one hand than the other.

More ridges on the right-hand fingers: This indicates higher levels of prenatal testosterone. He or she might master mental rotation – knowing which one of four abstract figures, revolved in three-dimensional mindspace, matches a diagram (a “masculine” task). Right-ridge dominant people are also better at aiming at a target and getting a bull’s eye.

More ridges on the left-hand fingers:
This indicates lower levels of prenatal exposure. He or she may be a whiz at games like word associations, taking a word like clear and coming up with glass then Philip then opera then ghost, or naming as many round objects as she can in three minutes (considered “feminine” tasks). Compared to straight men, gay men have more ridges on their left pinkies and thumbs.

Four or more ridges on the fingers of one hand than the other: This reflects how much stress your companion weathered when he or she was a second-trimester fetus. For instance, researchers found that women who were 14-22 weeks pregnant when an epic ice storm hit Canada were more likely to have babies whose ridge counts varied greatly between hands. In nature, dramatic asymmetry is often a sign that the fetus has been stressed in some way. The more stress, the less symmetry. In fact, those with significantly asymmetric ridge counts between right and left hands were more likely to score lower in language and intellectual development as toddlers. Both fingerprint development and the brain may have been affected by constriction of blood flow to the placenta or stress hormone levels.

Other ridge count studies have also found interesting correlations: a significant difference between the ring and pinky fingers of the right hand is associated with less muscle mass in the lower extremities and a bulked-up upper body, including a thicker waist. A difference of around three or four more ridges between the thumb and pinky fingers is also associated with diabetes later in life. Asymmetries are also connected to cleft lip, dyslexia, schizophrenia, infections, and other prenatal problems.

Around ten weeks after conception is when the bottom (basal) layer of fetal skin outgrows the top (epidermis), and the tension between the two causes the skin to buckle. At this time fingerprints are like wet cement: any disturbance until mid- pregnancy may leave a lifelong impression. At this time the skin and the brain are both are made of the same raw material — fetal ectodermal tissue. Any disruptive event in the womb left its mark on both. This means that fingerprints give us clues about the brain.

You would like to know more about the minds of the people you date, which is why you’re analyzing their fingers. Of course if you could read their minds, you’d know they think you’re crazy.

Do you carry DNA of former lovers in your body?

Posted in pregnancy, psychology, science, sex by jenapincott on January 28, 2011

This bit of science arcanum is especially cringe-worthy.

Many years ago, scientists first discovered that a large minority of women have Y-chromosome gene sequences in their blood. At first glance, this seems strange. Men are born with Y-chromosomes but most women are not. The male cells in these women must’ve come from somewhere else.

But where?

The most obvious source is a fetus. Nearly every woman who has ever been pregnant or had a baby has cells from her fetus circulating in her bloodstream. These cells filter through the placenta and reside in the mother’s bloodstream and/or organs — including her heart and brain — for the rest of her life. This condition is called microchimerism, named after the Greek chimera, a creature composed of the parts of multiple animals. Pregnancy-related microchimerism explains why women with sons would have Y-chromosome sequences in their blood.

This is fascinating enough. But how do you explain why women without sons also have male cells circulating in their bloodstream?

This was the subject of a study by immunologists at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. They took blood samples from 120 women without sons and found that 21 percent of them had male DNA. Women were then categorized into four groups according to pregnancy history: women with daughters only, spontaneous abortions, induced abortions, and no children/no abortions.

While the number of women bearing male DNA was highest in the groups that had abortions (nearly 80 percent), women who had only girls or no babies (20 percent) also had male cells in their blood. For no apparent reason.

There are other reasons why women in the fourth group carried male cells: inherited in the womb from a male twin that passed, from a miscarriage they did not know about, from their mother via an older brother…

Or through sexual intercourse.

There remains a possibility, however remote, that cells from a lover may pass be transmitted during sex. Those cells may hang out forever in the recipient’s body, taking residence in any organ. These cells are the imprint of lovers past, a trace of living history.

Might a woman’s bodily fluids enter a cut in a man’s genitals as well? Could men carry around the genes of women they’ve slept with?

The imagination is stirred. What are those foreign cells doing in hearts and minds? Are they wreaking havoc in our heads? Do the cells of former lovers clash? In a science fiction scenario a person could even take a drop of her own blood, isolate a cell from her former boyfriend, and clone him. Then do with him what she will.

The upshot of this research? It’s yet another reason to use a condom.

Are first-borns really the brightest?

Posted in psychology, science by jenapincott on January 20, 2011

For decades, researchers have observed that, on average, first-borns score higher on intelligence tests than their later-born siblings. This is nothing I’d brag about. I think it inspires resentment and eye-rolling among later-borns. But what many (not all) studies have found is that the further down a child is in birth order rank, the lower his or her IQ compared to older siblings. (Of course, intelligence tests and what they really measure are a controversial bugaboo in and of themselves, but let’s put that aside for now.) There’s no obvious reason for this because siblings often have the same parents and grow up in the same family environment.

The largest study on birth order and intelligence comes from Norway, where psychologist Petter Kristensen and Tor Bjerkedel studied data from a vast sample of more than 240,000 brothers conscripted by the military. Eldest children, it turned out, had an IQ nearly three points higher on average than the second-born siblings and about four points higher than third-borns, after controlling for parental education, marital status, income, mother’s age, and birth weight. (The effect of birth order on IQ does not differ for boys and girls.) A three-point difference in IQ doesn’t sound very significant from a personal perspective, but it is in the big picture. All else being equal, three points can translate into a thirty-point difference in SAT scores. That may make all the difference between admittance into an elite college or a second-tier one, for instance.

The IQ boost was strong when Kristensen compared scores between families (my first-born versus everyone else’s first-born, and my second-born versus all other second-borns and so on) and remained strong in a later study when he compared the scores of kids within families (my first-born versus my second-born versus my third-born and so on). This doesn’t mean that every first-born in every family was brighter. Many later-borns scored higher on IQ tests than their older sib. We’re talking about huge populations here, not individuals.

Even so, you’d think there is something special about the wombs of first-time mothers. It’s like a biological birthright, the first-born as know-it-all. They’re preachy and self-righteous. But they can be useful, too. They show the younger kids how to wheedle ice cream from an addled parent and properly glitter and glue. They know how to make killer snowballs, open a lemonade stand, and coax the dog to stand on its hind legs. They know what people do when they have sex.

t turns out that all this teaching and preaching that is key to Kristensen’s explanation of why first-borns score better on tests. Whether sanctimonious and bossy or generous and caring, the interaction between older and younger sibs helps the elder. They learn by telling. In tutoring others, we all make sense of the world, and this in turn affects how well we do on intelligence tests. “Smarter” comes from being the explainer. In Kristensen’s view, this explanation beats the other big three theories that involve family dynamics — first-borns get more parental attention and are exposed to a more intellectual environment longer; parents have higher expectations of them; and they’re more achievement-oriented. It beats them for one major reason that Kristensen discovered when he dug deeper.

The IQs of second-borns are higher in families in which the first-born has died.

Not only did the second-born rise in family rank when a first-born died, but also in IQ, topping the scores of any younger sibs. Third-borns moved into second-place IQ rank in their families (one point higher) in the few cases in which second-borns in a family died.

There are serious critics of the first-born-the-explainer explanation for higher IQs — especially those who insist there must be a biological reason why first-borns score higher. Although family dynamic can still play a role, there may be another sly and subtle culprit: the physical toll the first-born takes on the mother, and how quickly she recovers from it. Some studies have found that second-borns, especially those with older brothers, have lower birthweights. Significantly lower birth weights, in turn, may affect IQs if there are not enough maternal resources for the new baby. (It didn’t in the Norwegian study, but perhaps the data should be looked at more closely.) A deficit of omega-3s may be also to blame, according to one provocative theory. If Mom used up her store of these butt-based-brain-building fats on the previous baby and didn’t have time to replenish them naturally or supplement them in her diet, the next baby might suffer slightly.

But what can we really learn from this? We can imagine that birth order affects a baby throughout life, and performance on IQ tests is only a sliver of it. For those who buy into birth order psychology, even choice of career can be explained by one’s ranking in the family, which some studies confirm and others do not.

First-borns are said to be more conscientious, conservative, performance-and-power-oriented, disciplined, fearful of losing face, and generally more anxious. This helps explain why more first-borns are presidents, Nobel Laureates, and CEOs.

Every rank has its niche. Middle children are born to rebel. They are less conscientious, less religious, and don’t do as well in school. They’re more sociable, impulsive, and open to fantasy. They’re good negotiators. The babies of the family show more interest in others and are more empathetic. They’re more creative, flexible, risk-taking, impulsive and more extroverted, perhaps because they arrive into a larger, more stimulating household and must compete for attention. Children without siblings are similar to first-borns in that they tend to be ambitious and performance-oriented, but they are often lonely, independent individualists, or, depending on their situation, rely more on family. Kids who grew up with same-sex siblings have been found to be more conscientious and extroverted. Women who grew up with both a brother and sister tend to be more creative, while men tend to be more agreeable.

But is there anything about being a first-born or later-born that affects success and happiness in life? This is ultimately what matters most for our kids — and the answer is that birth order has no impact here. The planet needs explainers and extroverts, contemplatives and can-do types, rebels and realists, visionaries and ancillaries. What one achieves in the world, beyond birth order and standardized exams, is the real test.

Archives

Connect on Facebook

Top Posts & Pages