There’s something deeply satisfying about New Baby Smell. Like New Car Smell, it just makes everything better when you’re around it. It also makes some adults want to eat babies (not literally, of course, more in a “oh my gosh you are so adorable I want to eat you up” sort of way). It turns out that there’s actually a sound scientific reason for that feeling. A recent German experiment brain-imaged two groups of 15 women (new mothers and non-mothers) while they smelled the odors of newborns’ pajamas. The results? “The smells were shown to elicit activation in the women’s brains’ reward circuits,” usually associated with certain foods. (Basically, the area of your brain that makes you want nice things like chocolate or wine.) “Not all odours trigger this reaction. Only those associated with reward, such as food or satisfying a desire, cause this activation,” noted researcher Johannes Frasnelli. Significantly, “the mothers’ reward circuits showed far more activation than those of the non-mothers.” The researchers have concluded that the results indicate that “the reward circuit’s response evolved to encourage mothers to feed and protect their kids,” not to really eat them.
The sudden, fleeting instinct to nibble a baby’s toe is an example of a “dimorphous expression,” usually known as cute aggression (as opposed to the non-cute kind which is on display outside bars on a Saturday night). Dimorphous expressions carry an important biological and sociological purpose: it’s the brain’s way of regulating our emotions. While it’s counter-intuitive, doing the opposite of what we feel seems to be helpful in maintaining emotional balance. As psychologist Oriana Aragon explains to Buzzfeed, “We regulate emotions in a lot of different ways … And with this new discovery, we are figuring out that sometimes we respond with the opposite expression from what we feel, and that seems to help to balance us back out too.” Three important facts need to be noted here. Firstly, men were not included in the experiment, and anyway their reward circuits are probably triggered more by the smell of pizza than babies. Secondly, the women sniffed newborn babies’ pajamas, not the content of their diapers (I’d like to see some brain-imaging for that). Thirdly, just because Science says there’s a reason you want to eat babies, please don’t eat babies.