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A chemical commonly found on newborn babies’ heads triggers aggression in women, but not for men, according to one new peer-reviewed study.
The chemical hexadecanal, or HEX, is emitted from humans. It doesn’t have an actual smell, but it’s something most mammals can sense, according to researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. When babies emit the chemical, researchers found that it triggers a reaction in women far different than in men. Their findings were published in the journal Science Advances on Friday.
“It affects the way you behave toward others – specifically, your aggressive responses to others,” lead researcher Eva Mishor from Weizmann’s brain sciences department said in a statement.
To study the affects of the chemical among humans, researchers had a random selection of 127 participants smell HEX, and the remaining participants smelled a placebo chemical. After inhaling the chemical, researchers then tracked their aggression by having them computer games that were, “purposefully annoying.” One game allowed participants to “punish” the enemy with a loud audio blast while allowing them to control how loud the blast was.
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When the chemical is emitted, it triggers a responsein the left side of the brain known to process social cues, like gestures and expressions. The brain then sends the message to a part called the amygdala, which controls aggression in humans.
The group found that for men, the connection between the left angular gyrus and the rest of the brain was increased, while in women, the connection was decreased.
Mishor’s co-author of the study, Noam Sobel, added this chemical release also allows babies to communicate what they want to adults.
“Babies cannot communicate through language, so chemical communication is very important for them,” Sobel said. “As a baby, it is in your interest to make your mom more aggressive and reduce aggressiveness in your dad.”
More research is needed to prove out the findings. Researchers also noted limitations including other chemicals present during studies and the amount of chemical in smelling tests.
The researchers said the study is one of the first to show a link between a single chemical and its effect on human behavior. It also sheds light on how sex roles play a factor in those reactions, and further research may show the evolution of chemical effects on humans.
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