DAZS — In a finding full of surprises, scientists have discovered key factors for one major aspect of childhood corpulence. One surprise: A gene with an auditory behavioral trigger. Another: You must be on vacation. Surprise #3: The gene resides not in the children, but in their parents.
Anyone who’s been on a beach vacation has had to wonder this exact thing: Why do those parents over there keep buying ice cream for their often already lumbering children from that truck that stops at the beach 11 times a day or from that emaciated hippie-looking guy with the cooler and bells who walks 29 miles each shift?
Dedicated researchers have finally had the eureka moment they’ve long sought in answer to this common question. It’s all in a sonic witches’ brew of tinny bells and incessant pediatric lamentation (better known as whining), a complex, combinatory auditory mechanism that is contextualized by the environmental cue of vacation. Further, the problem gene is not necessarily in the children, but in their parents.
Researchers from University of Haagen (here in Dazs) spent several grueling beach summers of research and were rewarded for their work with the discovery of I8-IcY-YUmE, a gene that when triggered all but forces parents to buy their children ice cream.
“First off, we want to differentiate our study focus from the serious, and apparently inexorable, health problem of childhood obesity,” said lead researcher Dr. Edy Breyer. “We are talking about childhood corpulence, or, more familiarly, childhood chubbiness. We can stop this one, if we can figure out the causes.”
This gene has probably always existed, but before the key human culture developmental step of ice cream bells, there was little manifestation of it. Now, parents helpless in the throes of this gene keep shelling out $4 so their kids can come back lathered with rainbow sprinkles, covered in some kind of blue goo, and/or sporting custard mustaches.
“Of course, there has long been research into auditory triggers for various behaviors,” said co-researcher Dr. Chris Hill. “This one involves a combination of ice cream truck bells and the intense whining of children.” Hill, popularly known in genetic research circles as “Turkey,” continued: “Most adults – we think the number is around 80% — are helpless in the face of it.
“We knew there was something happening, but it was realizing the combination of these things that eluded us for so long.”
Chalk one up for scientific serendipity. Breyer and Hill had been hot on the trail of this chilly mystery but were about to give up, despite years of effort. They saw parents buy ice cream. They saw some who didn’t. But, as they were leaving their beach “office” after a tough day of research on a Friday evening, Hill got a call from his young daughter, “She said, ‘Pleeeasssse daddy, Jason is eating alllll the ice cream and I want some.’” At that very moment, an ice cream truck was nearby, blasting its bells. Hill mechanically felt himself reaching into his wallet and extracting a $5 bill.
That whine-filled telecommunication changed history. Because it was a Friday, Hill had mentally put himself in vacation mode, even putting on a floral, button-down shirt, he recalled.
Breyer, who watched it all, said, “This was the big moment, the equivalent of Newton getting hit on the head with an apple. It led us to realize that this gene is in the parent and only works with some kind of vacation mindset. Maybe it’s because you’re trapped with your children. At home, when they complain, you can just slam the door on them and hope they go away until the ice cream truck is gone.”
After sequencing the gene in Hill, it was just a matter of laboratory legwork to correlate the gene’s existence in other parents who exhibited the same behaviors in response to these contextual clues. They even did a few comparisons with other auditory triggers like the brawny bellowing of a hot dog vendor — “Git yer dawgs heeere!” — to confirm their observation. “We always knew the Pavlovian effect of ice cream music on kids,” said Breyer. But we hadn’t thought about the parents, who, he did note, “are often chubsters themselves.”
Some children have been observed getting up to eight ice cream treats a day from oblivious parents. “I’m doing what?” said one, reaching absent-mindedly into his European man bag. Another said dreamily, “But it makes them happy,” watching as his chubby children labored up a dune, really more of a hummock, to get their third ice cream of the morning.
Whether the bells actually cause the whining or the whining is a strategic behavior will be the subject of another study. Researchers also will determine exactly what percentage of adults carry the gene and how it is transmitted to the next generation.
Whether the ice cream industry knew of this finding is the subject of a Congressional investigation, but all major ice cream makers denied knowledge. “We didn’t know,” said one, requesting anonymity.
The study shows again humans are not always in control. “This may be more frightening than the studies showing, say, that toxoplasmosis may make you drive recklessly or mate with lot of people,” said Breyer. “That is an invading microbe. But this is a hard-wired genetic trait. It makes you wonder if we have control of anything.”
Breyer and Hill’s work was published in The Journal of Auditory Dessert Triggers.