Darwin originally pointed out that there is something about infants which prompts adults to respond to and care for them, in order to increase individual fitness, i.e. reproductive success, via increased survivorship of one's own offspring. Lorenz proposed that it is the specific structure of the infant face that serves to elicit these parental responses, but the biological basis for this remains elusive. Here, we investigated whether adults show specific brain responses to unfamiliar infant faces compared to adult faces, where the infant and adult faces had been carefully matched across the two groups for emotional valence and arousal, as well as size and luminosity. The faces also matched closely in terms of attractiveness. Using magnetoencephalography (MEG) in adults, we found that highly specific brain activity occurred within a seventh of a second in response to unfamiliar infant faces but not to adult faces. This activity occurred in the medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC), an area implicated in reward behaviour, suggesting for the first time a neural basis for this vital evolutionary process. We found a peak in activity first in mOFC and then in the right fusiform face area (FFA). In mOFC the first significant peak (p<0.001) in differences in power between infant and adult faces was found at around 130 ms in the 10-15 Hz band. These early differences were not found in the FFA. In contrast, differences in power were found later, at around 165 ms, in a different band (20-25 Hz) in the right FFA, suggesting a feedback effect from mOFC. These findings provide evidence in humans of a potential brain basis for the "innate releasing mechanisms" described by Lorenz for affection and nurturing of young infants. This has potentially important clinical applications in relation to postnatal depression, and could provide opportunities for early identification of families at risk.
Kringelbach, M. L., Lehtonen, A., Squire, S., Harvey, A. G., Craske, M. G., Holliday, I. E., … Stein, A. (2008). A specific and rapid neural signature for parental instinct. PLoS ONE, 3(2). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0001664