We love babies!

Last week we had a couple of vis­i­tors to the com­mu­ni­ca­tions office — a col­league out on mater­nity leave and her beau­tiful new baby girl.

When they arrived sounds of “ooohs” and “ahhs” started echoing through the halls and one by one we fil­tered out of our offices to see the youngest species-​​member on the floor. After a bit we moved into the boss’s office so those wanting to do “work” didn’t have to listen to our high pitched hallway chatter.

We all stood around in a circle, awk­wardly staring at the baby with big goofy grins on our face. There were prob­ably about twenty or so people — men and women alike. We took turns passing the tiny bundle between us, ogling over her adorably small finger nails. Even­tu­ally I looked up and noticed that the men had somehow dis­ap­peared and all that was left were us females, still grin­ning wildly, bio­log­ical clocks pounding in unison.

The next day a male col­league stepped into my office to com­ment on the fas­ci­nating anthro­po­log­ical phe­nom­enon that had tran­spired the day before. He said we could have been speaking Ben­gali in the 1300s but it would have oth­er­wise been exactly the same scene: “People have been doing that same thing for thou­sands of years,” he said.

His com­ment got me thinking — there must be some­thing phys­i­o­log­ical going on there, right? There must be some­thing in our genes that urges us to con­gre­gate around babies and their mothers. So I reached out to our affec­tive sci­ence team in the psy­chology depart­ment to find out. As it hap­pens, we have a post-​​doctoral scholar, Dr. Shir Atzil, focusing on this exact ques­tion! Specif­i­cally, she is looking at how we rec­og­nize infants and maternal behavior.

Infants stim­u­late a cer­tain reac­tion that has to do with maternal behavior,” she said. “It’s a stereo­typic set of behav­iors unique for each species.” The response is more robust when it’s our own infant, having actu­ally entered a unique bio­log­ical state after giving birth (true for both mothers and fathers). Addi­tion­ally, the inter­ac­tions them­selves impact the infant’s long-​​term psy­cho­log­ical and bio­log­ical processes.

But other mem­bers of the species can react sim­i­larly to the bio­log­ical mother, as we clearly saw here on the 5th floor of Columbus Place last week. Allo­par­enting is some­thing that mothers across mam­malian species do: when they see a child, they start to take on the maternal role. Even a mama-​​sheep will treat an unre­lated cub like her own if she’s already given birth in the past.

It makes sense of course, it’s evo­lu­tion­arily adap­tive. “Maternal behavior is a cru­cial com­po­nent for sur­vival,” said Atzil. Not just of the indi­vidual, but for the species as a whole. For women, the response is more intu­itive, hap­pening at “low brain regions,” whereas the paternal response is more cog­ni­tive, said Atzil.

So we were all standing around the office the other day with cer­tain brain regions firing uncon­trol­lably, our maternal behavior instincts were engaged and if any­thing hap­pened to the real mamma, we were going to make sure that baby sur­vived to have babies of her own one day. “Such stereo­typic maternal behav­iors are deeply rooted in mam­malian biology, and in humans, also in cul­tural norms,” said Atzil.

I love it when I can blame my actions on evolution.