Arguments in the home linked with babies' brain functioning

March 25, 2013

Being exposed to arguments between parents is associated with the way babies' brains process emotional tone of voice, according to a new study to be published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The study, conducted by graduate student Alice Graham with her advisors Phil Fisher and Jennifer Pfeifer of the University of Oregon, found that infants respond to angry tone of voice, even when they're asleep.

Babies' brains are highly plastic, allowing them to develop in response to the environments and encounters they experience. But this plasticity comes with a certain degree of vulnerability—research has shown that severe stress, such as maltreatment or institutionalization, can have a significant, negative impact on child development.

Graham and colleagues wondered what the impact of more moderate stressors might be.

"We were interested in whether a common source of early stress in children's lives—conflict between parents—is associated with how infants' brains function," says Graham.

Graham and colleagues decided to take advantage of recent developments in fMRI scanning with infants to answer this question.

Twenty infants, ranging in age from 6 to 12 months, came into the lab at their regular bedtime. While they were asleep in the scanner, the infants were presented with nonsense sentences spoken in very angry, mildly angry, happy, and neutral tones of voice by a male adult.

"Even during sleep, infants showed distinct patterns of depending on the emotional tone of voice we presented," says Graham.

The researchers found that infants from high conflict homes showed greater reactivity to very angry tone of voice in brain areas linked to stress and , such as the , caudate, thalamus, and hypothalamus.

Previous research with animals has shown that these play an important role in the impact of early on development—the results of this new study suggest that the same might be true for human infants.

According to Graham and colleagues, these findings show that babies are not oblivious to their parents' conflicts, and exposure to these conflicts may influence the way babies' brains process emotion and stress.

Explore further: Babies are specially attuned to our voices and emotions

Related Stories

Parents' conflicts affect adopted infants' sleep

August 2, 2011

When parents fight, infants are likely to lose sleep, researchers report. "We know that marital problems have an impact on child functioning, and we know that sleep is a big problem for parents," said Jenae M. Neiderhiser, ...

English or Greek, toddlers watch the tone

January 10, 2012

(Medical Xpress) -- Infants can understand the difference between intentional and accidental actions from tone of voice alone, new research by the Cardiff University School of Psychology has shown.

Recommended for you

Serious research into what makes us laugh

November 24, 2015

More complex jokes tend to be funnier but only up to a point, Oxford researchers have found. Jokes that are too complicated tend to lose the audience.

Psychologists dispute continuum theory of sexual orientation

November 19, 2015

Washington State University researchers have established a categorical distinction between people who are heterosexual and those who are not. By analyzing the reported sexual behavior, identity and attraction of more than ...

Babies have logical reasoning before age one, study finds

November 18, 2015

Human infants are capable of deductive problem solving as early as 10 months of age, a new study by psychologists at Emory University and Bucknell finds. The journal Developmental Science is publishing the research, showing ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.