When I was in high school, I volunteered my weekends caring for preschoolers. Mothers would drop off their children for one child-free hour a week. After working with some of the children for several years, seeing their faces light up when they recognized me filled me with joy. But the way these children looked at me never really compared to the jubilation they felt when they heard their mother calling them at the end of that hour. Children were excited, even comforted, when their mother returned to pick them up. As it turns out, there’s a biological reason why a mother’s voice is a source of comfort. Researchers have discovered that a child’s brain becomes much more active when they hear mom speak, more so than when they hear other voices.
Recently, a study conducted by the Stanford University of Medicine revealed that childrens’ minds become far more engaged at the sound of their mother’s voice, as compared to the voice of a stranger. The auditory section of the brain, as well as regions involving reward processing, emotion, social functions, detections of what is personally relevant and face recognition become engaged at the sound of their mother speaking.
The study involved 24 children between the ages of 7 and 12 who were being raised by their biological mother, and had no developmental disorders. The children listened to recordings of their mothers, and of a control group of women, speaking three nonsense words. MRI scans detected heightened activity in the primary auditory cortex, amygdala, mesolimbic reward pathway, medial prefrontal cortex, and regions that process information about the self and the perception of faces only when the child’s mother’s voice was detected. The study also confirmed that children with the strongest social communication ability also had a higher degree of connectivity between the regions of the brain activated by the voices of their mothers. This suggests that connectivity between regions of the brain is crucial for well-developed communications skills in children.
This experiment reinforces findings about the power of a mother’s voice from other research conducted in recent years. In February of last year, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science journal found that premature babies’ brains developed at a much faster pace when exposed to their mother’s voice for three hours a day. In particular, the size of the babies’ auditory cortices and the corpus callosums (the band of fibers with connect the two hemispheres of the mind) were developed at a faster rate in the children who listened to their mothers speak in comparison to children who listened to the white noise in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit. Neuroscientist Amir Lahav of the Harvard Medical School postulated that, “exposure to a mother's voice in full gestation [provides] the brain with the auditory fitness necessary for priming the brain for hearing and language later on in life.”
Studies are even being conducted on the healing power of a mother’s voice for coma patients. Researchers at Northwestern University in Chicago seem to think that exposure to the voices of loved ones could regenerate neural networks in the brain. Ryan Schroeder, a 21-year old coma patient and participant in the experiment, responded to external stimuli after listening to his mother’s voice on a recording for three weeks. Schroeder began to track light entering from the room's window, and would follow commands to push a ball out of his hand after weeks of being non-responsive. It’s not yet clear if Schroeder woke up in response to the recording, but research has revealed a link between the voices of loved ones and brain activity. MRI scans of the coma patients revealed that regions of the brain became active when they heard family members, but not when they heard the voices of strangers.
So what can we take away from all of this? These findings conclusively support the notion that a mother’s voice is instrumental in helping children develop healthy social, emotional, and analytical skills. This then means that it is crucial for mothers to spend time engaging children in meaningful activities rather than supplying them with an iPad. More and more, parents are handing off quality time that could be spent engaging children in conversation to mobile devices. While an hour or two of quiet created by giving a child a mobile device can be a boon, it should not be a substitute for social engagement. Research suggests that empathy and problem-solving skills can be hindered by technology, and mobile devices can be harmful to the social-emotional development of a child.
Make sure that you talk to your children, and engage them in offline activities in which they have the opportunity to listen to their loved ones. For school-aged children, take the time to read through difficult homework problems. Doing so might help alleviate some of the stress associated with schoolwork. Read a story aloud before bedtime. Designate a family game night in which all participants must interact socially. Whatever you choose to do, stimulate meaningful communication between parents and children by carving out quality time away from computer and telephone screens.
By now, many of the preschoolers I looked after are entering adulthood, and are ready to conquer the world. They’ll face challenges at work, school, and home, and I only hope that when times get stressful, they’ll know to call on mom for comfort.
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