Both Charles Darwin and Konrad Lorenz, the pioneering ethologist, wrote about the appeal of baby faces as a possible adaptive mechanism. They surmised that babies' perceived cuteness could be nature's way of ensuring the little terrors get looked after. Now a team led by Morten Kringelbach and Christine Parsons has shown that men are as motivated by baby faces as women. Kringelbach is the same researcher who a few years ago showed that looking at baby faces, as opposed to adult faces, is associated with a distinct pattern of brain activity in the orbitofrontal cortex - a kind of neural "cuteness response".

For the new study, 31 men and 37 women (average age 20 years), all with limited experience of babies, looked at photographs of the faces of 70 babies (aged 3 to 12 months), each shown for five seconds, and rated their attractiveness. These results conformed to cultural stereotypes about gender differences, with the women tending to rate the babies as more attractive than the men (no such gender difference emerged for the rating of adult faces). A desire to conform to gender roles could have played a role here. However, both men and women rated as more attractive those baby faces that most closely conformed to the cute ideal: a large rounded forehead, large low-set eyes, a short and narrow nose and a small chin.

In another part of the experiment, performed either before or after the attractiveness ratings, the participants were able to press a button repeatedly to control how long each baby face remained on the screen. This was taken as a measure of how much the participants were motivated to look at the faces. In this case the men scored just the same as the women. Moreover, for both men and women it was those faces that most closely conformed to the cute ideal that they made the effort to look at for longer.

"Our findings indicate that both men and women appraise what is colloquially described as a 'cute' unfamiliar infant positively, and they will work to see that infant for longer than an infant with less 'cute' features," the researchers said. "This is in line with previous studies showing that 'cuter' infants are rated as more friendly, cheerful, and likeable and are rated as more 'adoptable'."

Parsons, C., Young, K., Kumari, N., Stein, A., and Kringelbach, M. (2011). The Motivational Salience of Infant Faces Is Similar for Men and Women. PLoS ONE, 6 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0020632

This is the new AS psychology blog, please take the time to read the articles/ links that I will post over the next months, also please leave a comment so that I know that you have read it
We wore ankle-length blue coats at my school, in the Tudor-style. When it rained, the wool of the coat gave off a pungent smell, rather like wet dog. Now when I encounter a similar scent, it propels me back in time to my school days. This effect is called the "Proustian phenomenon". The name comes from Proust's description in Remembrance of Things Past of how the smell of a tea-soaked madeleine biscuit transported him back in time to his childhood.

Smells do have this uncanny, evocative power, don't they? It's because of the relative proximity of the olfactory bulb (which processes smells) and the hippocampus and amygdala, which are involved in memory and emotions. Right?

Not so fast. In fact very little research has investigated whether smells really do evoke vivid and emotional memories, more than other sensory cues. What follows is a new, rare attempt.

Marieke Toffolo and her collaborators invited 70 female student participants to watch a disturbing 12-minute film featuring road traffic accidents, surgery and reports on the Rwandan genocide. Whilst the students watched the film, the smell of Cassis, a neutral berry-like odour, was sprayed into the room; coloured lights were projected onto the back wall; and inoffensive background music was played over speakers (no mention was made to the students of these cues; pilot work established that they were equally noticeable, pleasant and arousing). The researchers chose to focus only on female participants to keep things simple, because it's known that there are sex differences in olfactory perception.

A week later the students were called back and asked to write down as many memories about the film as they could. As they did so, either the smell, the lights or the music were presented again. The students also answered questions about the quality of their memories. The main finding is that students exposed again to the smell of Cassis rated their memories of the film as more detailed, unpleasant and arousing (but no more transporting or vivid) than students re-exposed to the music. However, the students re-exposed to the odour rated their memories no differently from students re-exposed to the lights. In other words, smell appeared to be more evocative than music, but no more evocative than lights.

"It could be argued that a necessary implication of the Proust phenomenon is that odours are more effective triggers of emotional memories than other-modality triggers," the researchers said. "Under such strong assumptions the results reported here do not confirm the Proust phenomenon. Nonetheless, our findings do extend previous research by demonstrating that odour is a stronger trigger of detailed and arousing memories than music, which has often been held to provide equally powerful triggers as odours."

Toffolo, M., Smeets, M., and van den Hout, M. (2012). Proust revisited: Odours as triggers of aversive memories. Cognition and Emotion, 26 (1), 83-92 DOI:
 What smells do you remember from your childhood and what memories do they evoke?