This is the latest baby to make waves on youtube. The baby seems to be showing a remarkable range of emotions in response to her mother’s singing of a sad song.
UPDATE: Quite a lot of people have asked me to explain this video. But I have to admit that I don’t really know. However, many other baby scientists have taken an interest too. Kate Gammon at the the Kinderlab blog has asked around and reports on a few expert opinions:
“I imagine that the video of the baby’s response to her mother’s singing is popular because it appears to show a sweet sentimentality at 10 months of age,” says Susan Jones, a professor of psychology at Indiana University who studies infant communication. “However, the baby’s facial expressions are more consistent with a conflict between sociality and fear – perhaps a positive social response to her mother’s face, and fear in response to her mother’s low and loud singing voice, which is not like her speaking voice. Babies at this age often react negatively to unfamiliar things, including new people, and familiar people with something out of whack (e.g., wearing a hat).” What Does That Cute Baby Video Actually Show?
I think they have it basically right that one ought to very careful of over-interpreting baby’s reactions to things in adult terms. A lot of the time their reaction is at a much simpler level. But it is still weird that the babies reaction hovers in an mildly worried and sad state. Normally that would quickly transition over into tears. A bit like this:
Our latest video comes from Diana and shows baby Ciera laughing as her twin brother Cole face plants the floor as he reaches for her bouncer. Ciera and Cole are just 1 year old in this video so it probably seems unlikely to you that Ciera’s laughter is a form of schadenfreude (pleasure derived from the misfortune of others). Sigmund Freud thought it was. But, not for the first time, Freud got it completely wrong.
Freud thought that almost all children’s laughter was a form of schadenfreude. In his 1905 book Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious he advanced the theory that children laugh at someone falling over primarily because they are glad it wasn’t them. He does admit that children can laugh from pure pleasure but he thinks that generally ‘children are without a feeling for the comic’ (p288 Freud, 1905) and that most of their laughter comes from a rare sense of superiority when someone makes a mistake they’re glad they didn’t make themselves.
This is a very paternalistic attitude to childhood. Firstly, children are not so self-conscious or even aware of their own limitations. Secondly, it is wrong to think that children’s natural reaction to someone-else’s misfortune would be negative. It’s a common misconception but recent research suggests that young children and even babies are actually empathic and moral. As developmental psychologist Nathalia Gjersoe says in her recent Guardian column:
If you have any experience of babies you’d be forgiven for thinking of them as entirely selfish, self-oriented little beasts with scant regard for others. It has long been thought that children are born amoral and that it is the job of their culture to teach them the difference between good and bad. However, studies with very young babies suggest that they might be much nicer than we previously thought. For instance, babies seem to empathize with the distress of others – crying in response to the cries of other babies and stroking or offering toys to those who seem to be upset. Babies also spontaneously help strangers who are struggling. The Moral Life of Babies (Guardian Online)
So the chances are that the first reaction of a baby to someone falling over would be one of concern. But if that were the case then why is Ceira laughing at her unfortunate brother? To be honest, I don’t think anybody really knows the real answer. For Ceira it might just be surprise. Possibly it is relief that he isn’t hurt; we rarely laugh if the accident looks serious.
Ultimately, there aren’t any fully convincing answers at the moment as to why babies or adults find falls and slapstick so amusing. We clearly do. IT is amazing (and slightly disturbing) quite how many videos of babies faceplanting there are on youtube. It seems it is not just Ciera who finds it funny. In the same book Freud also said that ‘children do not strike us in any way comic’ (p287 Freud 1905). As all these videos show he couldn’t be more wrong about that!
As I speculated in the previous post, most laughter is social and the reason that babies find dogs so funny is because dogs are extremely social creatures. This video illustrates the point beautifully:
As the internet clearly shows, people think that cats are way funnier than dogs. But not if you are a baby. The evidence is in and, apart from the occasional fan of goats, babiesthink dogs are hilarious. Our latest video of baby Lukas adds to the data
Naturally, as a scientist, I’d like more data. If you have a video of your baby laughing at a cat (or a dog), please send it in. I already have a theory why this might be. In short, adults are laughing at cats while babies are laughing with dogs. Adults find pictures of cats doing silly things so amusing because cats are typically quite serious and aloof. It’s incongruous and therefore humorous. In contrast dogs crave attention and will put up with all manner of silliness to get it.
To adults, dogs are too eager to please. But for babies the opposite is true. They are a bit too young to realise that cats don’t like wearing hats or pleasing humans. For them, the clownish antics of dogs are hilarious and the fact that dogs are eager to please is pleasing.
Laughter has two major components, the humorous and the social. 50,000 years of selective breeding has made dogs eager to please. It’s not clear what character traits domestic cats were selected for (purring and killing maybe). In any event, when we are little we enjoying sharing in the silly but social antics of dogs, as we get older we laugh when these characteristics are artficially imposed on cats. Finally, perhaps we ought to ask, what do dogs think of babies? It can go eitherway.
Here we see baby Caleb laughing as his mummy playfully attacks him with a funny blue octopus. Watch the film and you will see that although the laughs start with each octopus attack, it is not the octopus who is funny. It’s mummy. Caleb looks briefly at the octopus as it is poised to attack but most of rest of the time he looking at mummy and daddy (who is behind the camera). Caleb is only eight months old but it seems like he has already worked out that octopus is only a toy and that the really funny people are mummy and daddy.
Thanks to Caleb and his mummy and daddy for sharing the fun.
For new parents and their babies, there is a wonderful moment when the baby realises he or she has the power to make mummy and daddy laugh. From that point forth the clowning around rarely stops and mostly it is magical. Although many a parent has come to regret having once laughed at their baby blowing raspberries in their dinner. It’s only really funny the first few dozen times. (For you at least, babies being young are more keen on old jokes.) And it can get a little relentless when toddler has been given too much sugar and not enough attention. (Please note that no amount of attention is ever enough for toddler.) Obviously, the reason they do it is that shared laughter is so rewarding, your laughter makes them laugh. Once they notice this, they play up to their audience and everyone goes home happy. Baby Michael is just 5 months old in this video but he seems to already have got the idea.
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