Psychology Magazine

Volatile Hexadecanal Emitted by Babies Could Make Men More Docile and Women More Aggressive

By Deric Bownds @DericBownds
Interesting observations from Mishor et al.:
In terrestrial mammals, body volatiles can effectively trigger or block conspecific aggression. Here, we tested whether hexadecanal (HEX), a human body volatile implicated as a mammalian-wide social chemosignal, affects human aggression. 
Volatile hexadecanal emitted by babies could make men more docile and women more aggressive
Using validated behavioral paradigms, we observed a marked dissociation: Sniffing HEX blocked aggression in men but triggered aggression in women. Next, using functional brain imaging, we uncovered a pattern of brain activity mirroring behavior: In both men and women, HEX increased activity in the left angular gyrus, an area implicated in perception of social cues. HEX then modulated functional connectivity between the angular gyrus and a brain network implicated in social appraisal (temporal pole) and aggressive execution (amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex) in a sex-dependent manner consistent with behavior: increasing connectivity in men but decreasing connectivity in women. These findings implicate sex-specific social chemosignaling at the mechanistic heart of human aggressive behavior.
From the author's discussion:
....what behavioral setting could underlie selection for a body volatile that increases aggression in women but decreases it in men? Or in other words, what could be the ecological relevance of these results? In this respect, we call attention to the setting of infant rearing. Parents across cultures are encouraged to sniff their babies, an action that activates brain reward circuits in women. Our results imply that sniffing babies may increase aggression in mothers but decrease aggression in fathers. Whereas maternal aggression has a direct positive impact on offspring survival in the animal world, paternal aggression has a negative impact on offspring survival. This is because maternal aggression (also termed maternal defense behavior) is typically directed at intruders, yet paternal aggression, and more so nonpaternal male aggression, is often directed at the offspring themselves. If babies had a mechanism at their disposal that increased aggression in women but decreased it in men, this would likely increase their survival. With the hypothesis in mind that HEX provides babies with exactly such a mechanism, we first note that infant rearing is the one social setting where humans have extensive exposure to conspecific feces, a rich source of HEX. We also turned to a recently published analysis of baby-head volatiles, yet in contrast to our hypothesis, this report did not mention HEX. We turned to the authors of that report, who explained that the published analysis was not tuned to the near semivolatile range of HEX. With our question in mind, they (now coauthors T.U. and M.O.) sampled an additional 19 babies, using gas chromatography (GC) × GC–mass spectrometry, and observed that HEX is one of the most abundant baby-head volatiles...

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