Study: Mom's voice works like a charm on your brain

When mom speaks, a child's brain lights up like a Christmas tree, a new Stanford study says.

Story highlights

  • Several parts of the brain are amped by hearing from mom
  • This reaction to dear old mom's voice may stretch beyond childhood

(CNN)Less than one second. That's how long it takes children to recognize their mother's voice. And that voice lights a child's brain up like a Christmas tree.

A new study from Stanford University School of Medicine studied how children reacted to mom's voice compared to a woman they didn't know. Kids were not only more engaged by mom's voice than a stranger's, scientists found, but this response was noted beyond just auditory areas of the brain.
    Parts of the brain related to emotion, reward processing, facial recognition and social functioning are also amped by hearing from mom. In short, a child's ability to communicate socially is in a large way affected by how he or she reacts to mom's voice.
    "Many of our social, language and emotional processes are learned by listening to our mom's voice," said lead author Daniel Abrams, a Stanford instructor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences. "But surprisingly little is known about how the brain organizes itself around this very important sound source. We didn't realize that a mother's voice would have such quick access to so many different brain systems."
    Abrams considers this brain connectivity "a neural fingerprint for social communication abilities in children."

    'Biological circuitry'

    In the study, two dozen children, ages 7 to 12, underwent an MRI brain scan while listening to short clips of nonsense-word recordings, some from the mothers and some from a stranger.
    Even in audio clips less than a second long, kids could identify their mom's voices with 97 percent accuracy.
    The fact that so many parts of the brain lit up after hearing from mom was the real surprise for scientists, said Vinod Menon, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and the study's senior author.
    Abrams agreed.
    "We know that hearing mother's voice can be an important source of emotional comfort to children," he said. "Here, we're showing the biological circuitry underlying that."
    This reaction to dear old mom's voice may stretch beyond childhood. A study back in 2010 suggested that teenagers going through a stressful time were almost instantly soothed by hearing mom's voice on the phone, because the conversation helped reduce a key stress hormone and released oxytocin, a feel-good brain chemical believed to play a role in forming bonds.
    So the next time you get a call from mom, don't let it go to voicemail, go ahead and answer.
    Just hearing her voice -- as a child and as you're older -- will do you some good.