You know how when you visit your friend and her newborn, you have that weird urge to suck on its chubby lil’ calves and nibble its toes? Turns out there are scientific reasons for your cannibal cravings, according to researchers at the University of Montreal.
To try to understand why a plump, succulent baby has the same effect on us as a plump, succulent hen, the researchers performed brain-imaging on two groups, each containing 15 nonsmoking women. Those in one group had given birth within six weeks beforehand; those in the other had never given birth. The scientists presented each woman with odors collected from the pajamas from a two-day-old child and tracked the scent’s effects on her brain.
Moms and non-moms reacted to the scent with identical intensity. But in moms, the odor generated a higher level of activity in the dopaminergic system of the caudate nucleus, a region in the brain that “plays a role in reward learning,” according to researcher Johannes Fraselli. The system releases dopamine, which causes us to crave certain foods, tobacco and drugs, as well as sexual stimulation.
“Not all odors trigger this reaction,” says Fraselli. “Only those associated with reward, such as food or satisfying a desire, cause this activation.” As he explains it, “What we have shown for the first time is that the odor of newborns … 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.”
Questions that still remain to be answered: whether giving birth itself stimulates hormonal changes that cause the heightened reaction, or whether it’s the mother-child bond that causes it to develop. Oh, and whether there’s any similar heightened reward response in dads.