On Tuesday, Gawker posted a video of a 10-month-old baby weeping as her mother sang her a sad song. “Death by cute,” the article tag proclaimed. Commenters on YouTube, where the video originally appeared courtesy of the infant’s dad, Alain Leroux, agreed. “Please let this child study music as soon as possible,” wrote one. “Her heart is already full of love for music! I believe that tears are real and meaningful!”
When the sappy video squelched its way into Slate’s internal email threads, we thought the tears were real and meaningful too! Real and meaningful and creepy as hell. “This is just NOT how babies cry,” wrote one mother of three. “Are they cutting onions behind the camera?” “My money is on Dad standing behind Mom wringing the neck of the baby’s favorite stuffed animal,” suggested another coworker. (Except, then, wouldn’t the baby be screaming?) Redditors were equally confused and disturbed. A poster claimed that “this mother is totally missing her babies cues. He is frightened by her singing. Every time she stops, he starts to smile and then cries again when she continues singing.” Or maybe the infant was keenly sensitive to noise and experiencing minor discomfort? Or maybe all was well. Had months of listening to Mozart in the womb fostered in this kid such a fine aesthetic sensibility that her mom’s a capella rendition of a Rod Stewart ballad brought on tears of joy, like Julia Roberts weeping at the opera in Pretty Woman?
It was time to call in the experts. “We know that babies can detect and react to emotional expressions from very early on, certainly by ten months, and that they are sensitive to both facial expression and tone of voice,” says Alison Gopnik, a specialist on infant cognition and a professor of psychology at the University of California in Berkeley. “Babies are also sensitive to music, recognizing musical phrases, for example.” Gopnik believes that the baby was responding to the sorrow in her mother’s voice and presentation, especially as evidence suggests that babies “take on the emotions of those around them, imitating facial expressions literally from birth.” Ted Coons, a psychology professor at New York University who focuses on musical cognition and perception, seconded her theory. “It’s not personal distress,” he reassured me over the phone. “By 10 months, infants are very good at paying attention, matching the sound of a voice to the expression of a face. They have emotions of their own, too: They empathize. My guess is that the baby is weeping out of empathy with its mother—either mirroring her as a part of bonding or picking up on her sadness.” (Said the mother of three when I told her this: “My kids must be cold-hearted, or dumb.”)
Was it possible that the wee genius was crying tears of joy? Or even swept up in an artistic reverie? “Well, it looks like a very warm relationship,” Coons said. “Of course, it would depend on the infant’s experience with the mother and what this sound has been matched up with in terms of consequences. It could even be fear. But I would call it bittersweet.”
OK everyone, as you were. A pair of Canadian parents doesn’t seem to have perfected some atrocious new form of child torture, nor has the soul of Beethoven found shelter in a 10-month-old body (we don’t think). Anyway, here she is rocking out to “How the Gods Kill” by Danzig.