A surprising romantic reappearance

A few weeks before they are born most babies show a bias for turning their head to the right, rather than to the left. This bias continues for the first six months after birth.

Behavioural biases to one side are interesting to psychologists. They are an example of exceptions to the general rule of symmetry in biological development. The placement of language-related brain areas is another exception. Babies’ head turning bias is the first behavioural bias to occur in humans, and may be related to handedness bias, which in turn is related to the language-area asymmetry in the brain.

Mindhacks.com readers will remmeber our report of Paul Rozin’s call for more observational reports in psychology. Perhaps he’d approve of this 2003 paper in Nature: Adult persistence of head-turning asymmetry.

Onur Güntürkün observed adult head turning behaviour among kissing couples in the U.S, Germany and Turkey. Sure enough, his observational research, in ‘international airports, large railway stations, beaches and parks’ discovered that during most kisses (64% of the sample) couples turned their heads to the right rather than the left. A statistically significant difference and, according to Güntürkün, ‘a surprising romantic reappearance’ in later life of the neonatal head turning bias.

So, next time you hold a child in your arms and they turn their head to the right, you are seeing an echo of a bias that may be directly linked to our species’ most remarkable evolutionary achievement, language, and a bias that stays with us throughout our lives.

Reference: Gunturkun, O. (2003). Human behaviour: Adult persistence of head-turning asymmetry. Nature, 421(6924), 711. doi:10.1038/421711a which contains the line ‘It takes two people to kiss (Fig. 2)’!

12 Comments

  1. Posted August 7, 2010 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    It would be i interesting to discover if there is a difference between the right handed and the left handed population.

  2. Posted August 7, 2010 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    This is fascinating stuff, of course, but…don’t a pair of people facing each other turn their heads in opposite directions when they kiss? Here’s an image Gunturkun used in his paper to illustrate the rightward-bias: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v421/n6924/fig_tab/421711a_F2.html Isn’t the male figure in that sculpture turning his head to his own left?

    Am I missing something?

  3. Posted August 7, 2010 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    That it actually fascinating!

  4. Posted August 7, 2010 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    Meera – goodness, I see what you mean! I think the explanation is that they are turning (tilting) their heads to the right, while looking left

  5. Posted August 7, 2010 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

    Ah; for some reason I wasn’t focusing on the crowns of their heads.

  6. kat
    Posted August 8, 2010 at 1:52 am | Permalink

    I’m wondering how this squares with ear dominance, because isn’t it the case that speech/phonemes/languagy-things are best heard through the right ear? So wouldn’t a head-turning preference towards the right in infants generally expose the left ear towards these sounds (such as language directed at the infant) ?

    Then again I don’t really know how infants or humans in general move their heads to locate sounds their our ears, so I might be wrong… anyone have any information?

  7. Posted August 8, 2010 at 3:48 am | Permalink

    This reminded me of the fantastic book on laterality by Chris McManus http://www.righthandlefthand.com/

  8. Gunnlaugur Lárusson
    Posted August 9, 2010 at 3:06 am | Permalink

    Found this by pure accident just then:
    “Research team found that request heard by the listener through his right ear was more frequently accepted as compared to request heard by the listeners through his left year.”

    http://www.topnews.in/speak-right-ear-get-right-response-2184350

  9. Posted August 15, 2010 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

    “So, next time you hold a child in your arms and they turn their head to the right…..” THEY? THEIR? Since when does a singular noun (child) take a plural pronoun? Or am I missing something?

  10. Posted August 15, 2010 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    I apologize for that comment…..I’m a grammar nazi by birth and education….can’t help myself sometimes. :)(:

  11. Posted August 16, 2010 at 12:22 am | Permalink

    Since when does a singular noun take a plural pronoun?

    Since Shakespeare.

  12. Posted August 16, 2010 at 1:15 am | Permalink

    OMG!I stand corrected!


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