Next time you feel anxious and tense, like a knot of nerves, instead of scheduling a massage or some time in the sun, you might want to call your mom.
A mother's voice has the power to settle jangled nerves and maybe even reach through the fog of a coma to bring a brain-injured patient back to consciousness, according to a pair of new experiments.
In a study published Wednesday, researchers from the University of Wisconsin — Madison, asked 61 girls and their moms to take part in an experiment to determine whether a voice could be as comforting as physical hugs and kisses. The girls, ages 7 to 12, were instructed to give a talk and then solve some math problems in front of a panel of judges — a situation, the researchers figured, that would make any kid’s heart pound and blood pressure rise.
Before the girls gave their performances, the researchers measured the levels of two important and powerful hormones: oxytocin and cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone that spikes during times of stress. Oxytocin is the bonding, or so-called “love,” hormone.
“It’s generally been assumed that there has to be physical contact for oxytocin to released,” said study co-author Seth Pollak, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin. “We were curious what would happen if the contact was only by phone.”
When the girls finished their presentations, they were sent to one of three rooms. In one, moms were waiting with hugs and kisses and warm reassurances of the girls’ success. “The moms came in and hugged the girls and stroked their hair,” Pollak said. “They’d reassure their daughters with words like ‘I’m sure you did fine. You always perform so well.’”
In another room, girls received phone calls from their mothers with verbal reassurances similar to those heard by the first group. A third group of girls didn’t meet up with their moms but were sent to watch the heart-warming movie “March of the Penguins.”
When the researchers later measured hormone levels, they found, not not surprisingly, oxytocin rose and cortisol fell in girls who had been in physical contact with their mothers. What was surprising was that the behavior of the hormones was almost identical in girls who had only spoken to their mothers on the phone.
Sweeter than a penguin movie
The girls who watched the movie saw no increase in oxytocin, while cortisol levels continued to be elevated an hour after the stressful performance.
“Oxytocin seems to put a cap on how high stress hormones can go,” Pollak says. “What tickled me about this study was that it goes against all the literature suggesting that you need to have physical contact for oxytocin levels to rise. But all that research was based on rodents.”
The study results may not apply to every mother-child pair. Pollak allows that when relationships are more complicated and there is tension involved, mom’s voice might not be so soothing.
“The reason we chose pre-pubertal children is that, for the most part, they still really do like to be comforted by their parents. As kids get older the relationship can get more complicated and strained.”
Pollak says he’d like to explore the effects of a mom’s voice in those complicated relationships in future research.
Penetrating the fog of a coma
In another experiment, which is ongoing at Northwestern University in Chicago, researchers are testing whether a mother’s voice can pierce through a coma.
There, voices of family and friends are recorded and then played back to the brain-injured patients through headphones several times a day.
One of those patients, Ryan Schroeder, a 21-year-old college student, was in a coma after being flung from snowmobile into a tree. He started to respond to external stimuli after three weeks of hearing his mother’s voice played for him over and over.
Until the study is finished, it won’t be clear whether the awakening is due to his mom’s voice or just a coincidence. But a year later, Schroeder is walking with assistance, texting friends and brushing his own teeth.
Lead researcher Theresa Pape, an assistant professor of medicine at Northwestern University, suspects repeated exposure to the voices of loved ones could help regenerate the brain’s neural networks. MRI scans of coma patients reveal that parts of the brain light up when they hear family members, but not for unfamiliar voices.
The new research shows how potent the sound of a familiar voice can be, says Helen Fisher, an anthropologist with Rutgers University in New Jersey and author of “Why Him? Why Her?”.
“It shows why it’s important to have people in our lives that we can call, who will calm us and get our cortisol levels down,” Fisher said.
Ultimately, the study confirms something we instinctively knew all along, Fisher says: “When we call someone we love, we feel better.”
As for whether love and comfort comes through a text message? That’s another study.
Linda Carroll is a health and science writer living in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Health magazine and SmartMoney.