Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Let Me Hear Your Voice

This past Tuesday, while millions of citizens in Mexico were going about their daily routine, another earthquake struck. This one registered 7.1 on the Richter Scale, and as compared to the earthquake that struck the country just two weeks ago, Mexico City was hit hard this time. I was en route to the airport when I received the first text from my son, Brendan, who is living in Mexico City, “Hey fam another huge earthquake in Mexico. We’re ok.” I was relieved before I really knew the news. It was a gift. And in the ensuing days, despite gas leaks and loss of electricity, Brendan’s text updates have continued to come. Grateful for the technology that I hold in my hand, I nonetheless longed to hear his voice.

What is it about hearing the voice of a loved one? I knew Brendan was okay, but it was only when I actually heard, “Hi Mama Bear” that I felt my body begin to relax.

1. The sound of our voices help us know how we feel. Most people think that feelings come first and then we speak. That may be true a lot of the time.  But it is also true that when we hear our own voices or hear other people’s voices, it is not just the words, but the sound of the voice that helps us actually identify how we feel. The French researcher, Jean-Julien Aucouturier, demonstrated in an extraordinarily creative study that by manipulating the sound of people’s voices, he could manipulate their own, subjective reports of how they were feeling emotionally. So when I texted Brendan the next day and asked how he was holding up, and he replied, “meh…”, it made me want to hear his voice all the more. The words were not enough.

2. When we hear, we also see. Well, at least someplace in our brains this is true. Voice is stored in our brains as echoic memory in the auditory cortex. In contrast, the occipital lobes are responsible for receiving and processing visual images, which are then stored for the long-term in different areas of the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortes. When we hear a voice, the auditory and visual parts of our brain both become activated and we have something that the scientists call “multiple sensory integration,” which means that the senses work so intimately in unison that it is as if they were one. So when we hear, we also see. We have an amplified sensory experience, and we feel closer to the people with whom we are connecting.

3. Human voice is at the core of what we know. Babies in utero develop the capacity to hear sounds from the outside world by 25 to 29 weeks. They hear their mother’s voice not only as ambient sound, but also internally through the vibration of vocal cords. And they respond! The heart rate of a fetus increases in response to its own mother’s voice, and the effect increases as the due date approaches.

4. Music to My Ears. I was indescribably relieved when Brendan and I eventually connected by phone – even if just for a minute. In the chaotic aftermath of the earthquake, Brendan had been going non-stop. But to actually hear his voice, I knew he was okay. Despite his feeling mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted, his voice was calm, and across the thousands of miles, it brought a calm to my being as well. My experience is not unlike what we know to be true for individuals whose memory is fading. The power of a familiar voice can be like familiar music in connecting us to emotional experiences and memories that help us feel calm.

5. Back to Hormones and the Release of Oxytocin. In other posts, I have mentioned the stress-releasing power of the hormone, oxytocin. It is true for voice recognition, too. How is it that hearing the voice of a loved one can have profound calming effects? Oxytocin is at least part of the story. Children comforted solely by the mother’s voice show swift increases in oxytocin and return to baseline levels of stress. I hope my voice released some oxytocin for Brendan. The calm I felt following our short call tells me mothers can experience a release of oxytocin with the sound of their children’s voices, too.

Whether it is in the wake of large-scale devastation caused by the earthquakes in Mexico, or upheaval caused by recent hurricanes, or more personal and private traumas, truly connecting in whatever way possible is a gift. My heart goes out to all who have been impacted by the recent disasters that have been in the news. I also know that everyday many carry the burden of more private loss and injury. No matter the circumstance, texts and emails are great to connect and convey crucial information. And when we are actually able to hear each other’s voices, all the more healing is in the offing.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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