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Babies perk up to sounds of ancient hazards

A snake's hiss and angry voices quickly capture infants' attention

11:27am, September 9, 2013

Babies have an ear for primeval dangers, a new study suggests.

By age 9 months, infants pay special attention to sounds that have signaled threats to children’s safety and survival throughout human evolution, say psychologist Nicole Erlich of the University of Queensland, Australia, and her colleagues. Those sounds include a snake hissing, adults’ angry voices, a crackling fire, thunder claps and — as a possible indicator of a nearby but unseen danger — another infant’s cries.

Noises denoting modern dangers, as well as pleasant sounds, failed to attract the same level of interest from 9-month-olds, Erlich and her colleagues report Aug. 27 in Developmental Science.

People can learn to fear just about anything. But tens of thousands of years of evolution have primed infants’ brains to home in on longstanding perils, the scientists propose.

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