The Soothing Effect of Mom’s Voice

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© Charles Gullung/Corbis

Senior Woman Using Cell Phone --- Image by © Charles Gullung/Corbis

Just hearing Mom’s voice over the phone may have the same soothing effect as getting a hug in person, according to new research to be published tomorrow in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

To understand how interaction with mothers can influence levels of what is often referred to as the “cuddle chemical,” oxytocin, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Child Emotion Lab recruited a group of 7- to 12-year-old girls, and then placed them in a stressful situation. Afterwards, one group watched a simple, emotion-neutral film, one was allowed to interact directly with their moms, and the third got to talk to mom over the phone. Researchers found that, whether over the phone or in person, moms’ ability to soothe was just as powerful.

To begin with, researchers asked the young study participants to deliver an unanticipated speech in front of a group of strangers and then drilled them with difficult math questions (all in the name of science, of course). The girls’ heart rates rose and stress levels, indicated by a surge in the hormone cortisol, surged. At this point, researchers divided them into the three different groups. They found that oxytocin levels jumped in both girls who were comforted in person, and those who’d been soothed long distance — and that the magnitude of the increase was nearly the same. The findings indicate that, contrary to previous belief, oxytocin levels can be influenced even without physical contact.

The researchers speculate that women’s ability to govern stress hormones and bump up oxytocin levels using verbal communication may have some basis in evolution. Leslie Seltzer, the biological anthropologist who led the research, suggests that, while men might have been driven into “fight or flight” mode by a surge in cortisol, women, who were more likely to have children in tow, couldn’t necessarily choose between running or fighting without also endangering their little ones. As a result, Seltzer speculates, women may have developed a way to utilize social bonds to diminish stress — and boost oxytocin levels, either by touch or voice.

The study adds to a growing body of research on the impact of oxytocin, the hormone probably best known for facilitating labor and nursing, as well as early bonding between a mother and baby. A study published this past January suggested that oxytocin may actually help people with autism overcome some symptoms of the disorder, better enabling them to react to social cues or facial expressions, for example. More recent research found that men who were given a boost of the hormone exhibited a greater capacity for empathy.