When my daughter was small, I had a fail-proof way of getting her attention sometimes. I use the same method to get the attention of a room full of high-spirited students when it’s time to begin class. And I trained the family dog to respond to a similar method as well. What I do is simply speak in Broken Record at a whisper. Not only does it take a lot less energy, but I find using it to be unfailingly effective at getting attention.
By contrast, when I listen to any of the four candidates currently running for office in America, I often feel as if I’m being aurally assaulted. If I fully focus on voice tone, rhythm and cadence, and don’t pay particular attention to the words they’re saying, I can’t really listen to any of them for more than a few minutes. I soon notice myself glazing over and going numb. (Perhaps that’s what they intend? If it is, they might want to consider some more powerful creative possibilities).
Sweet nothings, baby-byes, lullabies, pillow talk – they all have great power, and could be put into service much more than they are by parents and politicians alike. Why? Because they all work the same soothing magic on the brain’s limbic structures. They repeatedly activate the resonance circuitry – those pathways between the amygdala, hypocampus, hypothalamus and the prefrontal cortex. We tend to like and trust people who activate our resonance circuits, and when we’re not limbically hijacked, we tend to be much more agreeable, relaxed and amenable to outside influence.
The formal term for this way of speaking and listening is prosody. Wikipedia has this to say about prosody:
prosody is the rhythm, stress, and intonation of speech. Prosody may reflect the emotional state of a speaker; whether an utterance is a statement, a question, or a command; whether the speaker is being ironic or sarcastic; emphasis, contrast and focus, and other elements of language which may not be encoded by grammar.
Emotional prosody describes the perception of feelings expressed in speech, and was recognized by Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man to predate the evolution of human language: “Even monkeys express strong feelings in different tones – anger and impatience by low notes, fear and pain by high notes.” Native speakers listening to actors reading neutral text to project emotions were able to recognize happiness 62%, anger 95%, surprise 91%, sadness 81%, and neutral tone 76% correctly in trials.
There continues to be a lot of research in neuroscience on prosody. Search through Google Scholar and you’ll come up with studies like these:
What makes prosody particularly interesting to me is that it seems to provide direct access to structures in the right brain, the places where early implicit memories are primarily stored. Those are the memories we all have that we don’t have words for – memories of things that happened to us shortly after conception up to the time we began acquiring language. Many of these memories live in us as something attachment researchers call “The Unthought Known.” These are things we know, but can’t easily put into words. These are memories, often overwhelming and disorganized, that talk therapy can’t help much to integrate. Prosody is why music soothes the savage beast, and why a therapy like psychoanalysis can go on for years with little real change taking place. Much of our early wounding is stored in imagery and somatic sensation, and implicit memories are inaccessible using language alone. (Check out The Limits of Talk for more detailed information).
If you want to compare and contrast people using prosody well, listen to any one of the current political speeches, and then go and listen to the speakers in this short YouTube video. Pay particular attention to how each of them makes you feel in your stomach, chest, neck and back. Which works to increase tension? Which works to release it?
How would you like to go to sleep each night having one of these sweet voices reading you a bedtime story?