From before birth, up until the time she was a teenager, I noticed that my daughter, Amanda would respond to her mother’s voice very differently than she would to mine. Even before she could walk, she would instantly turn her head in my direction with a kind of focused intensity whenever she heard my voice. She would attend to her mother’s voice of course, but it was with a much less immediate level of intensity.
As she grew older and each of us would engage her or give her instruction around the house, I usually only had to tell her to do something once; her mother, over and over. I thought this was an interesting phenomenon, and often felt bad about how hard Amanda’s mother had to work to get her to take action. Well, it turns out that there is a very specific neuro-physiological reason for that difference.
Ear Bone Connected to the Ear Bone
In my ear and in your ear are three detached bones. It’s one of the things that defines us as mammals. Affecting those three bones are muscles, and nearly-almost-not quite connected to those muscles are nerves. Children begin developing all three bones and muscles in utero and along with that development, shortly thereafter they begin strengthening a process called Neuroception. Neuroception is an unconscious threat and safety detection system that works with limbic and other nervous system structures in order to keep me safe. It’s primary purpose is to alert me to dangerous nouns: unsafe people, places and things in the world around me. Loud, rumbling environments usually bring with them some degree of threat. Think angry, yelling coach, falling monster fir tree, thunderstorm or overhead trains the first time you hear them in some major city. Also think: father’s angry voice. Or simply… father’s voice as contrasted with mother’s. In many households, because of its threatening tonal range, father’s voice carries significant power.
Social Engagement Makes It Happen
How my ears hear what they hear often determines how I will respond to people, places and things. I generally respond in either one of two ways – I either approach them or avoid them, socially engage or self-protectively turn away. I will often see people at the grocery, or on the street whom I actually know and like, and yet, I will turn away and avoid them in the moment. It simply takes too much energy, focus and effort to engage. That’s my compromised social engagement system – neuroception – reactively and unconsciously directing the action.
Astonishingly, much of this often happens in response to how slack or tight the tensor tympani and the stapedius muscles become that are attached to the ossicles – the hammer, anvil and stirrup bones in my ears! And much of that happens completely outside my awareness. I simply end up feeling emotionally drawn to or away from certain people, places or things (most often away, since my social engagement system is not nearly as healthy and robust as it might be. And interestingly, my male-female friend ratio is probably 1-100).
Vagus Heads Rule
Neural control of the heart is neuro-anatomically indirectly linked to neural control of the muscles of the face and head. My own and other people’s. When I’m able to show up in other people’s presence as someone greatly skilled in non-evaluative listening AND I am able to consciously modulate my voice so that it doesn’t trigger an instinctive dorsal vagus nerve response, I contribute to an environment that feels safe. Both the other person and I can begin to relax. By voice tone, by the way my eyes make contact, by the way the muscles in my face sincerely and collaboratively respond to another person, both our heart rates begin to synchronize. And along with that synchronization, I would posit comes the potential for expanded heart rate variability (which I discussed in detail last week HERE).
(Voice can also be used to produce just the opposite effect as well. For this reason and others, loud shouts are often used in martial arts training, competitive athletics and in military exercises. Anything that might serve to compromise an adversary’s neural functioning is something to be placed into service according to the Warrior Way).
But the peacetime, conscious use of prosody and voice range and listening can make MANY good things happen as a result of expanded HRV. So, if you truly want to take care of the men in your life, teach them how powerful their voices are and some of the many ways to make them even more powerful – by using them to co-create environments in which our hearts, brains, minds and bodies can relax and safety can rule. A great way to do that: become a skillful listener.
Here’s but one example: In his book, Solving Tough Problems, global leadership facilitator, Adam Kahane once interviewed Xerox vice-president, John Elter. Elter headed up Xerox’s Documents group, which ended up generating over $40 billion dollars in revenue for the company. When asked how important listening was to his division’s success, Elter answered, “It is everything. The challenge of product development is not about products. It is about interpersonal relations: power, trust, alignment. My team worked hard to learn how to listen, without judging, to what others want to say – to really be there. If we listen in the normal closed way – for what is right and what is wrong – then we won’t be able to hear what is possible: what might be, but is not yet. We won’t be able to create anything new.”
This coming Friday is National Listening Day. Click HERE and buy one of my many Listening Books. Listen: do it for the benefit of your own heart or the hearts of those you love. Co-create something totally unexpected and new. I promise you, you won’t be sorry.