What the “Emotional baby! Too cute!” video teaches us about studying animal minds

by • October 30, 2013 • Animal Cognition, General, Personal MusingsComments Off5711

This adorable video of a baby reacting with strong emotion to her mother’s singing has been making the rounds this week.

The ever “fruitful” discussions in the comments section on YouTube reveal a clash between those who believe that the baby is experiencing pain/stress, and those that believe she is filled with joy. These discussions remind me of those that cropped up with the rash of guilty dog videos. In both cases, viewers are making guesses as to what emotions the baby and/or dog are experiencing based on its facial expressions. In pre-verbal humans or non-human animals, this is often the only method we have for making guesses as to what they are feeling.

When I look at this baby video, I do not see a baby in any real distress. But I do notice that her tears and facial contortions are most prevalent whenever her mother sings the high notes. They are least prevalent when her mother stops singing – this is when she produces a slow smile. Watch the video carefully, and note the correlation between high notes and tear-filled eyes. It might well be that the baby finds the high notes uncomfortably loud – young ears, after all, do not yet have any of the hearing damage that dampens the higher frequencies – an inevitable product of aging in humans and most other animals. Or it might well be that the baby finds the high notes to be the most emotionally powerful. Or maybe she subconsciously considers the high notes to most closely resemble the cries of another baby, causing her to want to cry herself – a well known phenomenon known as contagious crying (an early form of empathy). Perhaps this is why we, as adults, also respond emotionally to the soaring high notes so often found in the chorus of pop songs (think of the “ooooh” in the  chorus of Bon Jovi’s Livin’ on a Prayer).

The only way to know for sure what this adorable baby girl is feeling is to ask her. Unfortunately, she won’t be able to answer for a few years. And by then, she’ll have forgotten all about this adorable little moment. Until she finds YouTube.

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