Babies have a unique way of navigating social relationships, and drooling plays a role
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Babies have a unique way of navigating social relationships, and drooling plays a role

by Freya Lucas

January 27, 2022

For babies and young children, establishing who they can count on to take care of them is a skill that is critical for survival, and one of the first markers in their lifelong journey of learning to navigate social relationships. 


Neuroscientists from MIT have now identified a specific signal that young children and even babies use to determine whether two people have a strong relationship and a mutual obligation to help each other: whether those two people kiss, share food, or have other interactions that involve sharing saliva.


In the new study, the researchers demonstrated that babies expect people who share saliva to come to one another’s aid when one person shows distress, much more so than when they are simply sharing toys or interacting with one another in ways that don’t involve saliva.


The findings suggest that babies can use these cues to try to figure out who around them is most likely to offer help, the researchers say.


“Babies don’t know in advance which relationships are the close and morally obligating ones, so they have to have some way of learning this by looking at what happens around them,” senior author Rebecca Saxe explained.


Thick and thin relationships 


In human societies, lead author Ashley Thomas explained, people typically distinguish between “thick” and “thin” relationships. Thick relationships, usually found between family members, feature strong levels of attachment, obligation, and mutual responsiveness. Anthropologists have also observed that people in thick relationships are more willing to share bodily fluids such as saliva.


“That inspired both the question of whether infants distinguish between those types of relationships, and whether saliva sharing might be a really good cue they could use to recognise them,” she added.


To study those questions, the researchers observed toddlers (16.5 to 18.5 months of age) and babies (8.5 to 10 months of age) as they watched interactions between human actors and puppets. In the first set of experiments, a puppet shared an orange with one actor, then tossed a ball back and forth with a different actor.


After the children watched these initial interactions, the researchers observed the children’s reactions when the puppet showed distress while sitting between the two actors. Based on an earlier study of nonhuman primates, the researchers hypothesised that babies would look first at the person whom they expected to help. That study showed that when baby monkeys cry, other members of the troop look to the baby’s parents, as if expecting them to step in.


The MIT team found that the children were more likely to look toward the actor who had shared food with the puppet, not the one who had shared a toy, when the puppet was in distress.


In a second set of experiments, designed to focus more specifically on saliva, the actor either placed her finger in her mouth and then into the mouth of the puppet, or placed her finger on her forehead and then onto the forehead of the puppet. Later, when the actor expressed distress while standing between the two puppets, children watching the video were more likely to look toward the puppet with whom she had shared saliva.


Social cues


The findings suggest that saliva sharing is likely an important cue that helps infants to learn about their own social relationships and those of people around them, the researchers say.


“The general skill of learning about social relationships is very useful,” Ms Thomas said. “One reason why this distinction between thick and thin might be important for infants in particular, especially human infants, who depend on adults for longer than many other species, is that it might be a good way to figure out who else can provide the support that they depend on to survive.”


In future work, the researchers hope to perform similar studies with infants in cultures that have different types of family structures. In adult subjects, they plan to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study what parts of the brain are involved in making saliva-based assessments about social relationships.


To access the study in full please see here

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