No, I’m not talking about some crazy new parenting trend; I’m talking about that intense feeling you have when you hold your newborn baby – the feeling that you just can’t get close enough to them, the one that makes you nuzzle your face and pretend you’re eating them. Yeah, that feeling. Apparently, science has come up with a reason why this overwhelming feeling occurs, and it may not be what you think.
The brain is an amazing organ – it controls nearly every response our bodies have. And apparently, the desire to “eat our babies” is no different. What’s most interesting is the fact that, according to researchers from the University of Montreal’s Department of Psychology, the intense feelings with our newborns come from the very same section of the brain that encourages us to eat.
“The olfactory — thus non-verbal and non-visual — chemical signals for communication between mother and child are intense,” Johannes Frasnelli, a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer at the University of Montreal’s Department of Psychology told Red Orbit. “What we have shown for the first time is that the odor of newborns, which is part of these signals, activates the neurological reward circuit in mothers. These circuits may especially be activated when you eat while being very hungry, but also in a craving addict receiving his drug. It is in fact the sating of desire.”
Researchers came to this conclusion after compiling two groups of 15 women – one group that had never had children and another that had given birth 3-6 weeks prior to the experiment. All of the women were presented with the odor of newborns that weren’t their own through clothing that had been worn and then collected two days after birth. While exposing women to the odors, brain imaging was done to look for brain signals.
Interestingly enough, both groups of women perceived the scent with the same amount of intensity. However, those that had given birth had a greater activation in the dopaminergic system of the caudate nucleus – a double structure located in the center of the brain, straddling the thalamus in both hemispheres.
“This structure plays a role in reward learning,” Frasnelli explained. “And dopamine is the primary neurotransmitter in the neural reward circuit.”
This system reinforces motivation to act in a specific way because of the pleasure factor. This is what causes us to desire certain foods, and it even an area of the brain that fuels addiction and is triggered during sexual pleasure. Laboratory rats that have had their dopamine levels stimulated by electrodes can become so satiated that they stop eating altogether.
Essentially, the researchers believe that this particular area is triggered in the brain of mothers so strongly because it helps to form emotional and motivational responses between mother and baby. This likely encourages the desire to protect, bond and even breastfeed. And essentially, that reaction and the bond that ensues from it is essential for the baby’s survival.
But the study also poses some additional questions. For example, is the increased response of mothers due to the biological and hormonal changes she’s experienced after childbirth, or is it a reaction that has come with the experience of having a child?
“It is possible that childbirth causes hormonal changes that alter the reward circuit in the caudate nucleus, but it is also possible that the experience plays a role,” Frasnelli said.
In addition, the study did not determine whether this reaction is sanctioned to just women, or if it also extends to men.
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