Learning to navigate social relationships is a skill that is critical for surviving in human societies. For babies and young children, that means learning who they can count on to take care of them.
MIT neuroscientists 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 otherwise share saliva.
In a new study, the researchers found that babies actually expect those who share saliva to come to one another’s aid if any one person is in distress—much more so than when people share toys or interact in other ways that do not involve the mouth.
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,” says Rebecca Saxe, the John W. Jarve Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and senior author of the new study in the journal Science.
In human societies, 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 like 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 recognize them,” Thomas says.
To study those questions, the researchers observed toddlers (16.5 to 18.5 months) and babies (8.5 to 10 months) 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 hypothesized 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.
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.
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,” Thomas says. “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 use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study what parts of the brain are involved in making saliva-based assessments about social relationships.
(Source: Massachusetts Institute of Technology)