The Human Voice Is Medicine, So Why Aren't We Talking?

The voices of the ones we love change us.

Posted Oct 10, 2018

Matt Collamer / Unsplash
Source: Matt Collamer / Unsplash

At the end of a recent trip to my hometown to visit my elderly mom, my sister passed me an envelope containing a cassette tape. The moment felt like an exchange between Deep Throat and Bob Woodward. But what was on this tape was more valuable than anything that might bring down a president: It was a recording of my father’s voice. A voice I hadn’t heard in almost 30 years. A voice my wife and daughters had never heard.

I’d long lamented that I’d failed to save even a single voicemail message from my dad after he passed away in 1989. Audio of him in earlier life—captured on old home movies—had been destroyed when the family garage flooded. As the years passed, and my father’s voice in my head faded, he faded. Yes, there are photos, but photos fail to trigger the same memory cues. “The soul is contained in the human voice,” Borges said, and when you don’t hear the voice of someone you love for a long time, it can feel as though they are irretrievably lost to you.

This insight is partly what prompted Dave Isay to create StoryCorps, an oral-history project that won the million-dollar TED Prize in 2015. StoryCorps encourages you to sit down with an important elder in your life and ask them to tell you their story. Then, via a simple phone app, you send the recording to StoryCorps HQ, which in turn sends it to the Library of Congress, where it’s put on ice forever. The idea is that the subjective life story of every individual (not just “famous” people) ought to be preserved. The “voices” of the dead inform the lives of the living.

But voice preservation is more than an archival project, or at least it should be. The voices of the people we love are precious beyond measure. They are a profound psychological tonic, as several social scientists have demonstrated.

In one study, Leslie Seltzer, a biological anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin, had experimental subjects take a stressful exam. Then she let them calm their jangled nerves by contacting their moms. One group checked in with moms by text message. The other group talked to their mothers on the phone. Blood samples from each group, drawn before and after, revealed a startling difference: The students who had heard their mothers’ voices showed far lower levels of stress hormones, and higher levels of calming oxytocin. The students who had merely texted their moms showed no change in their blood chemistry.

In another study with younger subjects, Seltzer found that talking to mothers activated the same parts of the brain that hugging them did. In other words, hearing the voice of someone you love generates the same effect as physically touching them. (A short capsule of this work can be found on a recent episode of the podcast Invisibilia, which cites another study, this one from psychologist Theresa Pape at Northwestern University. When patients in comas had the voice of someone they loved piped into the hospital room, they came out of the coma more quickly than other similarly afflicted patients who did not hear their loved ones’ voices.)

All this suggests we should be thinking of the human voice as almost a kind of medicine. We should be wallowing in the sounds of the people we love. Instead, we’re moving away from communicating this way. Who uses the phone anymore? People are four times as likely to send an email or text message to someone than to call them up, studies show. It’s just more convenient, right? Never mind that, as a delivery system for nuanced psychological data, email is a tin-can telephone and the voice is broadband cable. (Studies show that simply listening to someone’s voice, we can read their emotions more accurately than if we were looking right into their face as they spoke.) 

Of course, if you knew the recipient was going to suddenly be gone tomorrow, you’d put down the mouse and pick up the phone in a heartbeat. 

So I’m going to suggest the following experiment: Next time you’re about fire off an email to someone you care about, pretend this will be your last correspondence with them, ever. No doubt you’ll pick up the phone. (Now, they may not answer; studies also show that fewer people are actually answering the phone these days, since the odds are decent that it’s a telemarketer or a scammer on the line. But it’s definitely worth a shot.)

Secondly, next time you talk to your aging parents — on the phone or in person — record the conversation. Then take that digital file and store it in the cloud and back it up. Put it in the fireproof safe. Never let it be lost.

Last week, I took that cassette tape my sister had given me to the public library and transferred it to a digital file. And then I took a deep breath and played it. And there he was. He was reading some excerpts from short stories and singing a couple of songs while playing the piano. He was, oh-so-recognizably and heartbreakingly, a little off-pitch.

It was good to have him back.