Meredith Cruse had just finished practicing with her new softball team, and she didn't want to stick around for the game. She walked over to the bleachers where her mother sat, looking for a way out, looking for solace.
"I didn't want to play because I didn't know anyone and I was sad," recalls the 12-year-old from Burlington, Pa.
Her mother, Jody, encouraged her to give the team a try — and Meredith did. She ended up having a good time, and kept playing. It was a moment of triumphant connection shared by daughter and mother, one that came through direct contact rather than on an electronic device.
Even in this era of computer chats and cellphone messages, hearing the voice of someone who loves you — moms especially — still carries a mighty biological boost at stressful times. A text just isn't enough, say researchers, who have found that among the virtues of voice is the ability to comfort at tense times.
In a 2011 University of Wisconsin study, 68 girls, ages 7 to 12, were given a public-speaking assignment that resulted in high levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their bodies. One
group of girls was allowed to see, touch, and talk to their mothers. Another group communicated with them via instant messages on computers. A third talked to their mothers by phone only, and a fourth group had no contact at all.
When hormone production was measured again, the girls who had heard their mother's voice produced more oxytocin, which is associated with positive feelings, and the amount of the stress hormone dropped.
"There is something about the power of the human voice that is a lot like touch or other kinds of physical contact in that it can release social hormones and decrease stress," says the
study's lead author, Leslie J. Seltzer, a biological anthropologist. "Communication online, like instant messaging, doesn't appear to have the same effect."
That's not surprising since humans have had a million or so years to learn the intimacies of vocal communication, while written communication has been around a mere 5,000 or 6,000 years.
"There's so much more information in the voice over and above the words being spoken," says Rebecca Brand, an associate professor of psychology at Villanova University. "You have all of the sound information and the timing information and the word information. In text, the timing's not clear, the emotions are not clear, and the familiarity of whatever you respond to in the sounds is missing."
That process of gaining familiarity — and comfort — with the sound of your mother's voice begins in the womb. In one study, a tiny microphone was placed in a pregnant woman's uterus, near the fetus' head. Many noises were recorded, including biological sounds from the mother, such as digestion, and the fainter burble of voices. The mother's voice is thought to be picked up best of all by the fetus, because it causes vibrations that the fetus feels.
"Even within the first day or two of life, (babies) show that they've already had enough experience with their own mother's voice that they prefer it to other, similar voices," Brand says.
The power of voice continues through life, taking many forms, including music.
For Danielle Orlando, principal opera coach at the Curtis Institute of Music, listening to a voice is an intense, sensory experience.
"The sound of a voice forces one to use one's senses, so it actually has a physical impact, whereas writing creates some distance because it's visual," she says.
Orlando spends a lot of time working with singers on nuance, inflection, tone, and color of the voice. Operatic singers use all of those vocal qualities to evoke emotion in listeners.
Referring to the University of Wisconsin study, Orlando says that when girls turn to their mothers amid troubles, a verbal conversation allows room for one person to respond instantly or immediately clear up misinterpretations. "But once you commit yourself to writing and texting, you can't take it back," she says.
Will electronic devices ever be able to mimic the nuanced, human empathy of an in-person encounter?
One project is trying to accomplish that by building an electronic tutor that can recognize and respond to the emotions of students taking a computer course.
Sidney D'Mello, an assistant professor of psychology and of computer science at the University of Notre Dame, says the tutor, which appears as an avatar whose computer-generated voice has been tweaked, can sense through facial expressions and body posture the trifecta of emotions that often bedevil students — boredom, frustration, and confusion.
Its responses are tailored to those triggers, making the inanimate machine seem emotionally responsive. Students who had some knowledge in the tutored topic didn't benefit much from this emotional support, D'Mello says, but struggling students did.
Still, computers aren't likely to replace the tender touch or loving voice of mom, or dad, anytime soon.
Softball player Meredith and her sister Melanie, 9, affectionately squeeze their mother's arms as they say how much they like being able to talk with her face-to-face. They don't think that will change — even when they finally are allowed to get cellphones.