What can Mickey Mouse tell us about a growing child?

At a party some time ago, I got talking to a biology graduate friend about comparative psychology, as a geek tends to do at social occasions.

Comparative psychology is the study of animal behaviour and mental processing across different species. By doing this, it gives us clues to the function, benefit and development of a particular behaviour. Understanding the similarities and differences amongst different animals in this way can shed light on evolutionary relationships.

The topic came up because our friends were revelling in how cute baby animals are. If you don’t believe me, just look at these cherry-picked examples:

Author: George Estreich

Baby monkey

Author: Ville Miettinen

Baby fur seal

Author: Matt Stanford

Baby elephant

Author: uaeveggies

Baby duck

What’s striking is how wildly different baby animals can provoke the same “aaah” reflex. Baby primates and baby birds, separated from each other and from us by millions of years of evolution, can elicit the same cooing reaction. And size doesn’t seem to matter − a 100kg baby elephant can bring as much infatuation as a 5kg baby seal.

In other words, there’s something about being a baby, and not just a miniature version of an adult.

This immediately reminded me of an image drawn by Nobel prize-winning animal behaviourist, Konrad Lorenz. It shows how juvenile proportions are conserved across different animal groups, and goes someway to explain why we react to many baby animals as we do.

From Studies in Animal and Human Behavior, vol. II, by Konrad Lorenz, 1971. Methuen & Co. Ltd.

From Studies in Animal and Human Behavior, vol. II, by Konrad Lorenz, 1971. Methuen & Co. Ltd.

I think I first saw this image in a book by renowned evolutionary biology, Steven Jay Gould*. He also included it in a wonderful essay called Homage to Mickey Mouse. In this article, Gould explains that over time, to chime with his softening of character, Mickey’s appearance became increasingly juvenile.

via Zoonomian

A large head relative to body, short legs and feet, bulbous cranium and big eyes, as seen in a latter-day Mickey, look like the hallmarks of a juvenile. And Mickey travelled this path to juvenility in reverse − a phenomenon known as ‘neoteny‘.

An illustration’s fine, but to truly demonstrate this scientifically, Gould actually measured the relative changes in Mickey’s physical attributes and plotted the results on a graph. The result, as was Gould’s wont, is an engaging fusion of science and creative writing − do read it. (On reading, I did wonder whether Mickey’s appearance was altered to match a desired change in character, or the other way round.)

The key to all this is that the proportions of a baby’s face, as compared to an adult, are similar across many different animals. This set of features triggers what Lorenz described as an ‘innate releasing mechanism’ − an automatic and consistent reaction to an important behavioural cue. It makes sense that a hard-wired mechanism has evolved to trigger an immediate sense of attachment when confronted with a baby’s face − it will promote parental care, which has clear evolutionary advantages.

But that same hard-wired mechanism also appears to fire when we see similar baby-ish proportions in other animals. It’s an inappropriate response in an evolutionary sense, but it’s better to be harmlessly fooled by a baby bird than to not feel instinctively drawn to our own baby.

What’s fascinating is that, in some cases at least, these ‘releasers’ are reduced to very specific features. A classic example was demonstrated by Lorenz’s Nobel prize-winning collaborator, Niko Tinbergen, using three-spined sticklebacks. A male stickleback will attack another male, as identified by a red belly, but will also attack any object with a red spot − fish-shaped or otherwise. A stickleback-shaped object without a red belly is suitably ignored. Like a red rag to a stickleback, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Babies do something similar in reaction to stylised smiley faces − a circle for a head, two dots for eyes, and a curved line for a mouth is enough to grab a baby’s attention. This stays with us into adulthood and is, for better or worse, the reason why emoticons are so enduring. So, similar to a stickleback reacting solely to a red spot, it seems it’s not a whole baby’s face we respond to, just a certain set of features.

Yes, your baby’s cute because of this graph:

“At an early stage in his evolution, Mickey had a smaller head, cranial vault, and eyes. He evolved toward the characteristics of his young nephew Morty (connected to Mickey by a dotted line).” By Steven Jay Gould

* I should dedicate this post to the late, great Derek Yalden, who taught me zoology at The University of Manchester and told me to read The Panda’s Thumb.

(As an addendum: none of this makes animals we find cute any more ‘worthwhile’ than “ugly” animals. Check out the recent campaign by the “Ugly Animal Preservation Society“.)

Looking after kids: it’s lovely but is it work?

Last week, I sent this tweet:

My wife had gone on a well-earned break for the day with a friend, leaving me in sole charge of our two-year old son and five-month old daughter.

We spent the morning around the house, slowly getting dressed, fed, washed and dressed again (we have a five-month old, remember). Finally, blessed with some gorgeous weather, we made it to the local park in the afternoon, before back for tea, bath and bed. Phew!

My point, squeezed into a snippy 140 characters, was in reaction to those who can be heard saying something like: “I put earplugs in/don’t do the night feeds/need lie-ins at the weekend (*recycle as appropriate) because I’m the one who has to go to work.”

I’ve certainly heard it. In my experience, always from men, many of whom I’m fond of and respect. I assume that when it is said, it’s usually from men, given the societal bias for women to take the extended parental leave, though I’m relying mostly on anecdote and supposition.

But, as I was changing the fourth nappy (diaper, my American friends) of the day with a two-year old playing ‘horsey’ on my back, I thought: “this feels on awful lot like work”. And at my office, I can make regular cups of tea, zone out for five minutes to check the news/Twitter and (usually) go the toilet when I want. I would like to see the bladder infection rates amongst parents, because I find myself ‘holding it in’ an awful lot.

From Men’s Health News

Don’t get me wrong, I had a lovely day and adore spending time with my kids. But it is hard graft.

Which is why this attitude really grates. My wife, who is currently on her second period of maternity leave, looks after the kids for the five working days, with our two-year old being at nursery school (preschool, my American friends) a couple of mornings the only partial respite. I did it for one day and felt the pinch.

But as Ian Curtis sang, routine bites hard. Day after day, going through those endless cycles of nappies, changes of clothes, feeding, shushing to sleep, is draining. And when you’re drained, doing it all over again sets up a tiring negative feedback loop.

This becomes even more acute when one considers that stress and lack of support can increase the risk of post-natal depression. Even without leading to such extreme consequences, it is beneficial for a child’s development for the parents to be less stressed. In fact, one study showed that minor daily hassles, which all mothers experienced regardless of background or family set-up, were related to more child behaviour problems, less satisfied parenting and poorer functional family status. The study also emphasised maternal emotional support, either from friends, communities or partners, as an important buffer from these adverse effects and to maintain mothers’ psychological well-being. I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to be a single parent, but find my anger rising as society moves to remove support for this group.

Again, I should say, we both get so much joy from looking after them and wouldn’t change them for the world. But it IS hard graft, and is why my wife’s break was more than fully earned.

Obviously, everyone’s situation is different. Many, many partners who ‘go to work’ are committed to helping a stay-at-home partner in the evenings and at weekends. Many people’s work is also incredibly demanding and stressful (more than mine), and this post is not a prescription of what ‘working’ parents ought to do, as it will depend hugely on circumstances.

But if you find yourself justifying an act with, “well I’m the one that works”, then you may want to have a second think.

My feedback for First Great Western trains

Excuse me for deviating from talking about science for a minute, but I need to vent.

I tried to make a complaint to the train company, First Great Western, about the lack of baby changing facilities on their trains. Apparently, my feedback “contains content that may present a security risk” and I was told to “enter more appropriate information” to allow me to submit.

I have absolutely no idea what content was inappropriate and, after 3-4 attempts, had no desire to go through a further lengthy trial-and-error process to push through a simple letter. So I have posted it below. (If anyone can point out the security-threatening content then please do!)

I hope someone from FGW is able to respond:

I took the 0859 to Bath from Brighton (3+ hr journey) on 17th May, with my wife and
2 children (both under 2). I was shocked when I went to change my
10-week old daughter’s nappy, only to be told that there were no baby
changing facilities on board.

It was odd that there were symbols on the toilet doors indicating baby
changing facilities but no such facilities inside. The conductor told
me that FGW had taken them out. I find this utterly incredible.

I had to change my daughter on the dirty floor at the end of a
carriage. The conductor was extremely helpful in the circumstances and
made sure no-one came passed (and gave us £5 for refreshments), but it
was pretty disgraceful I had to do it at all.

It is very family unfriendly and unhygienic, and the decision to take them
OUT seems even more unbelievable. I would love to know the rationale
for this decision.

Matt

I guess I can just be thankful my 22-month old son didn’t have a dirty nappy, then they might have had a few more complaints.

P.S. I did tweet @FGW and had this unenlightening exchange:

[View the story “Baby changing facilities on FGW trains” on Storify]

How to engage a baby

When you share a laugh with your baby, it can be one the warmest feelings as a parent. But is this a genuine mutual exchange, and how does it come about?

This is a video of what is now a classic experiment in developmental psychology. It shows a mother happily engaging face-to-face with an equally happy baby. The mother then ceases all facial engagement – the “still face” – to which the baby reacts by trying, with all its might, to reestablish the happy interactions. It’s quite a marked and powerful effect:

A historical review of the experiment quotes the researchers who first documented the effect:

“the infant first “orients toward the mother” and “greets her expectantly.” But then, when the mother “fails to respond appropriately,” the infant …

… rapidly sobers and grows wary. He makes repeated attempts to get the interaction into its usual reciprocal pattern. When these attempts fail, the infant withdraws [and] orients his face and body away from his mother with a withdrawn, hopeless facial expression.”

The experiment, in this form, was first presented at a scientific conference in 1975, but it wasn’t the first to document what happened when infants are exposed to varying social interactions. It was, however, the first to use “then-novel videotape technology” on the conference hall’s big screen. Adamson and Frick, in their historical review, suggest that the  immediate and dramatic illustration of the phenomenon contributed to the broad interest this experiment gained. An early lesson in the power of ‘modern’ technology for effective science communication and to maximise research impact.

This may all seem a little obvious to some parents. You may feel that you don’t need a psychologist with a video camera to tell you that a baby is happiest when you are engaging them face-to-face. But there are a number of reasons why the methodical description of this effect has had profound and lasting influence.  

What this experiment first showed, by deliberately manipulating the parent’s engagement, was that the baby is an active player in this exchange. The infant’s social behaviours can influence the parent’s level of engagement, just as the parent can influence the baby, and it can subtly alter these depending on the context. It’s not simply the parent reacting to the baby’s randomly generated cues. It has even been detected in babies as young as a few weeks old.

As Jason Goldman at The Thoughtful Animal says:

“The still face experiment demonstrated that very young infants already have several basic building blocks of social cognition in place. It suggested that they have some sense of the relationship between facial expression and emotion, that they have some primitive social understanding, and that they are able to regulate their own affect and attention to some extent. The infants’ attempts to re-engage with their caregivers also suggest that they are able to plan and execute simple goal-directed behaviors.”

But one reason why this experiment has been so important and enduring is that it provided a standard and reproducible way of measuring children’s social emotional development.

By using the same set-up time-and-time again, it has shown how a child’s social and emotional development becomes richer as they grow older. The response becomes increasingly complex with age, and can include deftly timed facial cues, dampened smiles, sideways glances at their parent and yawns. Adamson and Frick cite a lovely example for the original set of experiments in which a five-month old boy, upon encountering a still face, stopped being wary and…

“…looked at the mother and laughed briefly. After this brief tense laugh, he paused, looked at her soberly, and then laughed again, loud and long, throwing his head back as he did so. At this point, the mother became unable to maintain an unresponsive still face.”

An experience I’m sure many a parent can relate to when – armed with a stern face – they try earnestly to tell off their child, only to be met with a cheeky grin or giggle!

The experiment has also allowed researchers to deconstruct these parent-baby social interactions into visual, auditory and tactile components. Vision and hearing, it seems, is especially important as children get older, but touch can be enough to, at least partially, lessen an infant’s anxiety when confronted with a still face.

Nevertheless, a still face is usually enough to produce the basic negative reaction in a child, even if it’s in response to their mother, father, a stranger or someone on television. Children make a distinction, however, for inanimate objects, even if they appear quite human-like, demonstrating their ability to form genuine social relationships.

This experimental set-up has also revealed possible negative consequences of a parent’s still face. According to Adamson and Frick, children actually show a more dramatic reaction to a still face than to a brief period of separation or to situations in which the parent interrupts interactions to talk to a researcher. Babies assimilate and react to a negative social cue, rather than simply becoming distressed at the lack of stimulation.

The “still face” experiment has shown its use in further understanding various developmental disorders, such as Down’s syndrome, deafness and autism, as well the effects of environmental conditions like infants exposed to cocaine prenatally or to depressed mothers.

The still face experiment has been used to ask questions about how early social and emotional engagement may affect later behaviour. The strength of an infant’s still face effect has been linked to their mother’s normal sensitivity and interactive style, and it may predict the degree of later infant attachment, depression or anxiety, and even behavioural problems.

Clearly, parents who may have a lower level of engagement, such as those experiencing postpartum depression, should not be guilt-tripped, especially as this could have an exacerbating effect. But the still face experiment has shown that simple procedures can help in these situations – depressed mothers who are encouraged to provide more touch stimulation are often able to offset the lack of visual or auditory engagement to bring about more positive social interations.

As Ed Tronick – one of the original researchers of the “still face” experiment – says on his website:

“An infant’s exposure to “good, bad, and ugly” interactions with the mother, as repeatedly communicated by her facial expressions or lack of expression (i.e., a still-face) has long-term consequences for the infant’s confidence and curiosity, or social emotional development, with which to experience and engage the world.

Though let’s not forget the role of fathers, or other partners, either.

[Thanks to mum-in-law Jenny (once again) for the video and @matthewcobb for the Adamson and Frick article]

Hooray for vaccines

I saw this simple but illuminating infographic on the Forbes website, in an article by Matthew Herper. It was created by graphic designer Leon Farrant and shows the profound impact effective vaccines have had on a nation’s health. As Herper explains:

Below is a look at the past morbidity (how many people became sick) of what were once very common infectious diseases, and the current morbidity in the U.S. There’s no smallpox and no polio, almost no measles, dramatically less chickenpox (also known as varicella) and H. influenza (that’s not flu, but a bacteria that can cause deadly meningitis.

20130320-215714.jpg

Vaccine Infographic | Leon Farrant

I saw this not long after watching the British charity fundraiser Comic Relief, which supports aid and development projects in many African countries (amongst other things). One of the recurring themes in the telethon was the urgent need for vaccines in certain parts of Africa, and the devastation that preventable diseases are having on children’s lives.

Worthy, heart-wrenching and persuasive stuff.

But I couldn’t help feel even more frustration than I normally do that, despite having immediate access, many parents in developed countries like the UK and US still choose not to vaccinate their kids. As we have seen with a rise in whooping cough cases and measles in recent years, and as the infographic elegantly shows, a failure to properly protect the population can lead to serious health consequences.

—-

[And for a thorough rebuttal of antivaxers’ scaremongering, read David Gorksi at Science-Based Medicine]

*Infographic is licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.

Does the sun make you sneeze?

This is a video I took of our little one, sitting in a chair watching telly. As I walk over to him the sunlight streaming in through window catches him full in the face, and a couple of seconds later he sneezes.

This happens to him fairly often, usually as we leave the house into the bright sunlight. I noticed this behaviour straightaway, as the exact same thing happens to me when I move from dark to bright light.

It turns out that this doesn’t happen to everyone, as I found out when I said casually to friends, “you know how the sun makes you sneeze, well…”, and was met with stony silence.

Then I found out I had a proper disorder. Gosh!

It’s called a photic sneeze reflex, or as some witty scientists labelled itAutosomal dominant Compelling Helio-Ophthalmic Outburst - ACHOO syndrome for short. It is estimated that 17-35% of the population have it, and it’s far more common in white people than in other ethnicities.

But no one knows why it happens. Despite it apparently being noticed by Aristotle and investigated by philosopher Francis Bacon, little research has been carried out. My search in the biomedical database PubMed turned up only 16 research papers since 1984.

The best guess at the moment is that it’s because the nerve cells that carry information from the eye and those that carry information from the nose run so close together. As the nerves from the eye are stimulated by bright light, usually to constrict the pupil, electrical signals ‘spillover’ and activate the nerves coming from the nose. This causes the brain to confuse a bright light with a nose irritation, and… ACHOO! In fact, the area of the brain responsible for processing visual information is overstimulated in photic sneezers compared with non-sneezers, which may underlie the spillover effect.

We do know that it appears to run in families – as it has seemingly done in our case – but the genes at the root of it are not known. Initial studies claimed that a child has a 50% chance of inheriting the ‘disorder’ from a photic sneezing parent, but there may be more than one ACHOO gene.

It’s a fairly harmless reaction, though the US air force were sufficiently concerned to fund research into whether this reflex could endanger jet pilots. It could, but was easily overcome with sunglasses.

You may be tempted to speculate as to whether it evolved for a purpose. In all likelihood it didn’t, it is a quirk thrown up by evolution but one that’s not disadvantageous enough to be selected against.

It is irritating, but at least it doesn’t happen during sex.

Should babies watch TV?

This question seems to trouble many parents, and can cause a lot of guilt too.

“Will the TV numb my baby’s brain?”

“Are they destined for a sedentary life?”

“AM I CONDEMNING THEM TO LIFE AS A MINDLESS AUTOMATON?!”

This is why an interview last week with psychologist Annette Karmiloff-Smith on the BBC’s The Life Scientific caught my ear (thanks to a pointer from mum-in-law, Jenny). It’s a fascinating insight into how babies learn to learn, and how their brains develop to understand the world around them. You can listen here: The Life Scientific.

But on TV watching, Prof Karmiloff-Smith, an expert in developmental disorders, argues that if the subject matter of the programme is carefully chosen and scientifically based, then the TV can be better for a child’s learning than even a book.

This was largely in response to advice reissued by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) that babies under two shouldn’t watch any TV or DVDs. There are three main concerns: poorer language skills, a negative effect on sleep, and less time spent taking part in other types of unstructured play that are critical for the proper development of mental capabilities.

This is based on a growing body of scientific research. TV/DVD watching is common: in the US at least, by two years old over 90% of children regularly watch TV, spending an average of 1-1.5 hrs a day in front of the box. Very young babies (under 1.5 years old) cannot, however, really understand TV programmes, and are instead mainly attracted by obvious changes like applause or visual surprises.

Children learn new words or actions better when an adult is teaching it to them live, rather than via a television screen, and the worry is that parents talk to their kids less when the TV is on. And a growing number of studies suggest that children who spend longer watching TV/DVDs have delayed language development, at least in the short-term, and may also develop a worse attention span.

A child’s play may also be hindered by the distraction of a TV that’s on in the background, so the AAP advise to turn it off altogether. Many parents also use TV/DVDs as a sleep aid, but there is evidence that bedtime viewing may lead to more disturbed and shorter sleep.

Karmiloff-Smith, on the other hand, argues that we live in a media saturated world and it’s unrealistic to expect parents to shut down all media use. This view has support from some of the evidence cited in AAP report itself. Despite the original recommendation in 1999 that parents should be discouraged from letting their babies watch TV/DVDs, over 90% of them in the US currently do so by the time their child is two years old. What’s more, the average age that TV is introduced is 9 months, so the advice is clearly not striking a loud enough chord.

From my experience, I can certainly appreciate this. The AAP report says that many parents use the TV so that they can have a shower or cook dinner. Absolutely! Even these seemingly mundane activities can feel like an exercise in military-like efficiency when you’re looking after a child. A 10-minute respite when they’re quiet and content gazing at a TV or prodding an iPad can be just too tempting.

It’s also interesting to consider that throughout history many new technologies have been treated with caution. Dr Vaughan Bell, a psychologist based at King’s College London, has highlighted how the printing press, popularisation of the radio, and now the Internet have been damned for ruining kids’ brains.

Karmiloff-Smith goes on to say that, rather than banning TV for babies, TV programmes just need to be made better and based on science developments. For instance, the visual system is attracted by movement, but most kids’ TV programmes have their focus on the centre of screen. Instead, objects and features that come in from the sides, move across screen and encourage the child to interact promotes the active participation that’s good for mental development. For very young babies, moving image media may even have advantages over books, which are static and whose main attraction is the rustling of the pages.

The caveat in this is that Karmiloff-Smith reveals herself to be a scientific consultant to a DVD company that is designing such programmes. This could cause suspicion of a financial conflict of interest. But her honesty and gusto make me suspect that she became a consultant so that she could promote these ideas, rather than the other way around.

She finished the interview by emphasising that parents still need to interact with their children and the TV shouldn’t be used as a babysitter. But we should think more carefully about which types of media can stimulate the visual and auditory systems, so as to help train the attention and memory systems early.

I’ve written before about the various kinds of programmes and the various contexts in which kids can watch TV, which may have different effects on child development. And some of the evidence cited in the AAP report highlights these complexities. The effects on children’s attention, for instance, seem to depend on the programme content and style, with problems seen not when the content is deemed educational but only when it’s geared towards entertainment. And when a parent watches a programme with an infant and talks them through it, the child tends to become more attentive and responsive. The AAP report also points to evidence that watching Sesame Street can have a negative effect on expressive language in children under two. But the same study showed that watching other programmes, such as the North American-based shows Dora the Explorer, Blue’s Clues, Arthur, Clifford, or Dragon Tales, was associated with greater vocabularies and higher expressive language scores. So it appears that not all ‘screen time’ is equal.

The AAP report seems to fall into the trap of treating all TV and DVD viewing as the same:

For the purposes of this policy statement, the term “media” refers to television programs, prerecorded videos, Web-based programming, and DVDs viewed on either traditional or new screen technologies.

Another major limitation of the AAP report is that all of the cited studies are, by necessity, observational. These investigations are good at highlighting whether two factors are associated with each other, but they cannot tell you whether one causes the other. As the report itself asks, are children with poor language skills simply placed in front of the TV more? Are children with shorter attention spans more attracted to screens? Are parents who are less attentive on the whole, more prone to resort to screen time? If so, then turning the TV off would not necessarily lead to more parent-child interactions.

And some results are just contradictory. One study in the US showed that when the mother’s educational status and household income were taken out of the equation, the association between TV viewing and poor language development disappeared. This appears to have been glossed over by the AAP.

So how do I answer my original question?

The AAP are right to caution against a lot of TV for under twos (over four hours a day, say), as this is when the damaging effects are really apparent. But Karmiloff-Smith is also right to say it’s unrealistic to expect no TV at all, and that the right programme in the right environment is fine and potentially beneficial.

And I’ll leave you with this quote in Time from Dr Dimitri Christakis, a paediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital:

Ask yourself why you’re having your baby watch TV. If you absolutely need a break to take a shower or make dinner, then the risks are quite low. But if you are doing it because you think it’s actually good for your child’s brain, then you need to rethink that, because there is no evidence of benefit and certainly a risk of harm at high viewing levels.