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The Powerful Effects of the Human Voice

The Powerful Effects of the Human Voice

Annie Tucker Morgan | DivineCaroline

September 28, 2010

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved listening to the radio. The mellifluous voices of my favorite programs’ hosts—from David Allan Boucher, the DJ of the easy-listening nighttime show “Bedtime Magic”, to Ira Glass, of NPR’s “This American Life”—never fail to calm me down and make me feel right at home. On the other hand, when I hear a particularly nasal screech or a maddeningly flat tone—whether in real life, on TV, or over the phone—I become instantly uncomfortable and can’t think about anything besides getting as far away from the speaker as possible.

We all have different ideas about what makes certain sounds more soothing than others, but there’s not a person out there who’s entirely immune to the effects of the human voice. Whether you prefer a booming baritone, a sultry whisper, or a lilting tone, evidence suggests that our visceral reactions to the ways people speak play an integral part in our interactions.

A Mother’s Love
There’s a reason why so many people’s first instinct when they’re upset is to call their mother: a University of Wisconsin–Madison study has identified a concrete link between the sound of Mom’s voice and the soothing of jangled nerves through the release of stress-relieving oxytocin—also known as the “love hormone”—in the brain. In May 2010, biological anthropologist Leslie Seltzer told LiveScience that “it’s clear from these results that a mother’s voice can have the same effect as a hug, even if [she’s] not standing there.”

For her study, Seltzer asked a group of sixty-one girls between the ages of seven and twelve to speak publicly and solve a series of math problems before a panel of strangers. When the subjects’ stress levels increased under this pressure, one-third of them watched an emotionally neutral video, one-third received in-person embraces from their mothers, and one-third talked to their moms on the phone. In both cases in which the girls were allowed to interact with their mothers, Seltzer observed a lasting and marked decline in their levels of the stress hormone cortisol and a noticeable increase in their levels of oxytocin, while the participants who watched the video did not achieve the same turnaround. Seltzer believes these findings might be rooted in human evolution: she speculated that women responsible for protecting their children are wired to use voice-related social bonding as a stress reliever.

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