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Environment & Science

Lab Notes: Fearful babies, super octo-mom, wide faces and more




Behind the scenes with KPCC science reporter Sanden Totten.
Behind the scenes with KPCC science reporter Sanden Totten.

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For the new moms out there, it's possible that your baby can smell your fear. For the cephalopods out there, there's an octopus who gives her life for her babies over the course of four years. And for the car salesmen out there, as it turns out broad-faced men are better at negotiating.

KPCC's Sanden Totten joins Take Two to explain the science behind these studies in this week's Lab Notes.

Babies smell mother’s fear
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Researchers from University of Michigan

Scientists exposed female mice to peppermint smell and gave them mild electric shocks on their feet. Mother mice learned to fear peppermint, even when no shocks were involved. Normally, the mother calms baby rats, but when peppermint-fearing moms got that breath freshening smell, both mom and pup showed increase in cortisol, the hormone associated with fear.

Babies still feared peppermint even when mom wasn’t around, and would move away from it in mazes. Scientists tried this experiment again with the moms in a container so she could not be seen or heard by baby, only smelled. Both mom and pup were exposed to peppermint – again – baby picked up the fear.

Might be some hormonal cue to know what to fear. Good because often fear things babies should avoid. Could go haywire though if say, mom is afraid of clowns or dentists and baby picks that up too. PTSD could be trouble too since baby could pick up all sorts of fear cues.

It’s too early to know how this experiment applies to humans, because it’s still unclear to what extent humans use chemicals to communicate with each other. But scientists have suspected babies learn fear from parents early on – this might be partially how.

Super Octo-mom
PLOS one
Monetary Bay Aquarium Research Institute

Think nine months of pregnancy is bad? Try 53 months, or more than four years, to develop a baby.

That’s what deep water octopus Graneledone boreopacifica does with it’s clutch of eggs. Researchers found an octopus guarding a clutch of eggs with a remote control vehicle in deep water of Monterey Bay, nearly a mile down. They watched it for months and months and month, visiting it 18 times. It took 53 months until it’s 160 eggs hatched.

Octopuses never leave their eggs unattended, so it's a tough job for octo-mom. The specimen researchers followed became weak and thin waiting for babies to hatch. An octopus usually reproduces only once in a lifetime. This long brooding period gives them an advantage – since they are born more like tiny adults. This is crucial since the deep sea is a cold and dangerous place.

Quantum Cheshire Cat
Nature Communications
Vienna University of Technology

Let’s start with a chat about "Alice In Wonderland." The Cheshire Cat disappears, but leaves it’s grin hanging in the air. This prompts Alice to exclaim, "Well! I've often seen a cat without a grin, but a grin without a cat! It's the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!"

Scientists seem to have done something similar to a very tiny particle – think a photon or neutron. They separated a particle form it’s magnetic spin, so that the particle was in one place and its spin in the other for a brief period of time. They divided a beam of neutrons by zapping it though a silicon crystal — Imagine sending water down a river with a big island in the middle of one part.

The water goes around the island, splitting into two, and then meets back up. That’s what they were doing with this beam of neutrons. The result in this sub-atomic world is that the neutrons could go down either path A or B before meeting back up.

These particles are sent down the path – scientists found that sometimes the particle would go down path A – but its spin would be detected in path B. Like the Cheshire Cat in one place and it’s grin in another.

This might be helpful for designing microscopic measuring devices where a magnetic spin could mess things up – you could separate out that spin but keep the neutron. It's important to understand this weird quantum world, and it could lead to super fast quantum computing or other cool things.

Wide-faced men are better negotiators
UC Riverside

Researchers had 60 men with different facial width-to-height ratios negotiate a signing bonus. They found that men with wider faces negotiated a signing bonus of nearly $2,200 more than men with a more narrow face.

Similarly, in another scenario, they had men selling a fake chemical plant. Men with wider faces they negotiated a higher sale price than men with a more narrow face. When those same wide-faced men were in the buyer role they negotiated a lower price than the narrow-faced men.

However, the researchers found that when a situation calls for compromise and creative solutions to a financial problem, wide-faced men did significantly worse than narrow faced men. So it’s a blessing and a curse.

This suggests that narrow faces do better in collaborative settings and wider faces do better in aggressive settings. Data supports past research where people associated wider faces with aggression and even selfish behavior, but also with business success.

But there's no evidence in this study as for why, so don’t start making assumptions. Might be people’s perception of wide or skinny faces that we project on others that gives them confidence or makes them shy away. But if you are about to negotiate, maybe measure a face first?