What do you do when you’ve had a bad day? Depending on the depths of the badness, the cash and time at your disposal, and your post-trauma ability to make complete sentences, you can curl up with a book, hit the gym or the fridge, shop, watch YouTube, or call your mom.
As Wired reports, this last tactic has scientific endorsement. Researchers found in 2010 that young girls who talked to their mothers—either on the phone or face-to-face—experienced a drop in the stress hormone cortisol. Their brains also released a burst of oxytocin, the neuromodulator responsible for feelings of love and pleasure. The results of the study led one of its architects, Leslie Seltzer, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, to wonder about the precise origins of Mom’s power to soothe. Was it a preternatural ability to say the right thing? Or did it have to do with the tempo, pitch, tone, stress, and rhythm of her voice—some quasi-musical property of mom talk that runs parallel to sense?
With these questions in mind, Seltzer and her colleagues administered a challenging math exam to 64 girls, ages 7 to 12, during which three adult strangers were instructed to observe each girl cooly. (Apparently this is standard practice among experimenters hoping to gin up artificial anxiety. Remind me never to enroll my daughter in a psych study.) The test-takers were then divided into four groups: One group spoke to their mothers on the phone, some talked in person, others chatted via instant message, and the final group didn’t communicate with their moms at all.
As the researchers predicted, the “phone” and “face” children showed a decrease in cortisol levels and a spike in oxytocin levels after hashing things through with their mothers (compared to levels after the math exams but before the maternal word balm). Yet girls who had IMed their sorrows—and received digital consolation—demonstrated no hormonal change, just like the control group. In a paper published in the January issue of Evolution and Human Behavior, the scientists concluded that something about the sound of the mothers’ voices had a calming effect on the daughters. When textured spoken interactions were reduced to text on a screen, that effect vanished.
Seltzer believes we might be fine-tuned to respond to our moms’ vocal intonations; likewise, moms could have an uncanny aptitude to detect anxiety in their children’s speech. As a nominal “adult” who has sought maternal word balm in the past, I’m not surprised to hear that daughters might be uniquely susceptible to their parents’ tones of comfort (or, for that matter, anger or pride or frustration). And though I have never IM’d my mother, I can attest to the futility of trying to extract solace from her via text message.
I’ve always thought that this was because my mom seems to believe that “LOL” or emoticons are the only socially acceptable replies to a text. But perhaps I am underestimating the eerie buttressing power of her voice itself.