Babies’ Minds Part of The Truth About Life and Death First broadcast: Wednesday 09 July 2014
Tiny babies are, from birth, active learners. They don’t wait for the world to come to them. Claudia Hammond explores the very latest research about what influences the developing mind of the new born infant. Dr Caspar Addyman from the Babylab at Birkbeck, University of London, describes the biggest ever internet survey of babies’ laughter, which concludes that babies really do get the joke.
Enjoy this video of 2 year old baby Finn screaming with delighted terror as he races along on his little bike. If anything, I’d say he wanted to go faster. And like his dad says, you can bet he will love rollercoasters when he is older.
Finn isn’t at all unusual in this. According to our research one of the best ways to make 3 to 5 month old babies laugh is to dangle them upside down. And we’ve all been a little scared to watch proud new dads throwing their giggling young babies high the air. So why do babies find delight in danger and revel in rough and tumble?
I don’t actually know. Partly it is that they don’t know to be afraid. But that same baby could be scared by a small insect or a rustling curtain in his or her bedroom. So that can’t be the whole story. I suspect it comes down to adrenaline. Excitement and fear both cause your body to react in a similar way, releasing a lot of adrenaline and getting your heart racing. It prepares you to react. When the situation turns out not to be dangerous and there is nothing to react to then there is a sense of relief and excess energy has to be expended somehow.
In the spirit of science, I went on a a few roller coasters at Thorpe Park a few weekends ago. Here’s what happened to my heart rate:
I don’t mind admitting that at some points I was screaming like a little baby.
Laughing babies play an interesting role in the history of British Psychology. Over a hundred years ago they tickled the interest of Dr. James Sully, who worked just round the corner from Birkbeck Babylab at UCL, in Bloomsbury in London.
In fact, Sully was founder of the UK’s first experimental psychology lab at UCL and wrote several early popular books on psychology. These included Studies of Childhood published in 1892 and An Essay on Laughter published in 1902. Compiled from observations of his own children and reports sent in by the general public, laughing babies featured prominently in both books.
I recently learned about a lot more about Sully and his work when I was visited by Dr. Tiffany Watt-Smith, who studies the history of emotions at Queen Mary University of London. She’s written up an acount of our conversation. You can read it here.
In … An Essay on Laughter, Sully expanded his discussion of the significance of laughter in the early years of life. In it, he wondered about the evolutionary purpose of contagious laughing in forging sympathetic bonds between parents and children. Sully also identified different baby laughs – from the ‘sudden glee’ in which ‘the arms flag wing-like or meet in the joyous clap and the whole body jumps’, to the ‘forced laugh’ some children develop in response to a situation they realize they are supposed to find funny.
Make gleeful scientists..
‘It’s like being a stand-up comic’ says Dr Caspar Addyman, a psychologist investigating infant laughter at the BabyLab at Birkbeck University of London. Showing me around the basement laboratories, their walls painted grey to create a calm environment, Addyman admits he’s ‘full of glee to be doing this’. Here, Addyman and the parents who volunteer their babies to take part in his experiments, gurn, grin and play peekaboo. The giggles they elicit from their tiny experimental subjects are video recorded for later analysis. Addyman is only at the beginning of his research. He hopes to uncover the links between laughter and learning.
Baby Frederick from Warsaw, Poland has previously appeared on the site laughing at himself in the mirror. This was featured in the recent Daily Mail coverage of our project and we sent Frederick and his family a copy of the paper. His father, Maciej, just sent me this lovely photo of Frederick reading all about himself. He seems quite pleased.
Today is International Happiness Day. As our small contribution we thought we’d share some wisdom from the happiest people on the planet, laughing babies.
1. People make us happy
Laughter and happiness are best when shared. We laugh with our friends. The bond between baby and parent is the best friendship there is and that’s why babies and parents laugh more than the rest of us. But everyone can improve their happiness by improving their relationships.
2. Challenge yourself every day
If you are a baby, every new day brings a new challenge . And each success brings great happiness. If you are not a baby, finding new challenges can be more… challenging. But it will be worth it. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied remarkably happy people from all walks of life and discovered that this was their secret.
3. Be present
Babies laugh more than us because they are constantly stopping to look around. They are never in a such a rush to get somewhere else that they miss the magic of right now.
Finally, I am happy to say, I’m not the only person at Birkbeck studying happiness. David Tross is an associate lecturer in public policy and is studying for a PhD in Community and Happiness studies. Over on the Birkbeck research blog he asks ‘Could greater happiness be a permanent reality?’
The baby laughter project was featured in the Daily Mail today. So if you saw us there, thank you for visiting our site. We hope you like our laughing babies and all the hard work they are doing for science.
At just three months Dominic is the youngest ever baby fan of ripping paper. He is less than half the age of famous internet star Baby Micah. The fact that a baby as young as Dominic finds this funny is a real challenge to our understanding of their knowledge of the world. Read more here.
Caspar on the BBC News
Click on the image to watch the video.
If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me. To keep up to date follow us on twitter or subscribe to our Baby laughter blog RSS feed.
Thank you for visiting and thank you to all the parents and babies who have taken part so far,
Dr. Caspar Addyman Follow @BrainStraining