There’s a growing body of evidence pointing to the theory that we in Western society are experiencing loneliness at ever-increasing levels. How is that possible, when technology has supposedly made us more connected than ever? The incidence of depression and anxiety also appears to be on the rise, according to recent data, but while many experts attribute that to our overly busy lives and addiction to tech, there may be an even simpler reason.
What if humans, who’ve evolved to communicate through vocal expression, are missing out on something physiologically when we communicate via texting versus talking?
I started thinking about this—obsessing over it, really—after listening to an episode of the podcast Twenty Thousand Hertz, in which music psychologist Ani Patel of Tufts University explained that we might be losing a longstanding emotional connection when we type.
“Humans, over many hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, have become extremely attuned to the sounds of each others' voices and pulling out nuances, and reading these kinds of signals that we give each other through our voices,” he said, adding, “And when we communicate through texts or through email, we're just not using that. And so, cutting off that rich part of how we read each other's emotions, feelings, intentions, thoughts, moods, and so on. I think part of that is this emotional connection that happens when you hear a voice, as opposed to just reading a silent message.” (I reached out to Patel for to talk more about this concept, but he declined on account of extensive traveling.)
Diana Sidtis, a professor of communicative sciences and disorders at New York University, spoke to me about the idea. “The voice has been, biologically, so compellingly important to survival, to family membership, to recognizing who's a friend and who's a foe, and also to discerning attitudes and emotions, implications and everything,” she says. “The voice does all of those things…What are we missing now that we have so much less voice interaction?”
Think about the last time you actually spoke to someone you care about. You know, with your voice, either in person or over the phone. How often do you rely on texts or Instagram DMs to chat with friends and family? If you’re anything like me, you probably prefer this method of correspondence. It’s easier to have an ongoing text conversation in snippets throughout the day than commit to a 45-minute phone call.
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Regardless of whether you’re a busy parent whose child would never let you have an adult conversation for longer than a few minutes, or an introvert who works from home and hates using the phone almost 100 percent of the time, everyone has their reasons for sticking to texts.
I’ve never been good at reaching out to loved ones just to stay in touch. My mom will admonish me for not communicating regularly enough with her, and I’ll get better at it for a while and then slack off again until the next time. Six or seven years ago, this used to mean I’d phone her more often and we’d chat briefly. Now, though, we mostly text. The strange thing is that, although my mom may know more about what’s going on in my life now, I don’t necessarily feel closer to her because of it. And when I do get on the phone with her for one reason or another, and I feel this kind of relief run through me, like a weight has been lifted, though I can’t entirely place why. Sometimes you just need to hear your mom’s voice.
It turns out that’s not far from the truth.
Back in 2010, there was a bit of buzz surrounding a study in which University of Wisconsin researchers Leslie Seltzer, Toni Ziegler, and Seth Pollak hypothesized and went on to prove that hearing the human voice can trigger the body to release the hormone oxytocin and reduce production of another hormone, cortisol. (According to the Society for Endocrinology, oxytocin “has been shown to be important in human behaviors including…recognition, trust, anxiety and mother-infant bonding.” It’s been called both the "love hormone" and the "trust hormone." Cortisol, on the other hand, is released to help the body appropriately respond to stress, among other things.)
Specifically, the study examined the differences in both oxytocin and cortisol levels in children after undergoing a stressful experience involving public speaking and doing a math equation aloud. There were three groups: two that received comfort from their mothers afterward, either in person or by phone, and a control group received no comfort at all.
It turns out that the children who were comforted in person by their mothers had very similar oxytocin levels as those who were comforted by talking to their mothers over the phone—their cortisol levels also diminished at nearly the same rate. In contrast, the children who received no contact didn’t experience the increase in oxytocin and decrease in cortisol.
These results led Seltzer, Ziegler, and Pollak to pursue further research regarding the difference between the effects of vocal communication versus text-based, instant messenger communication. This time, it involved pre-teen girls and their mothers and the results were similar: Text-based communication left cortisol levels higher than vocal communication, and there was no boost in oxytocin. What’s interesting is the timing of this study: It was done in 2012, before smartphones had really taken off and we became so completely and utterly glued to them.
“What the paper really highlighted was not so much that technology and nonverbal communication is bad, but that verbal communication is unique,” Seltzer tells me. “So if you hear your mom's voice after a stressful event and you're a child, that's going to have a hormonal play-out after that happens. And that's not what you see when people text.”
Of course, these studies were done within a very specific group: Children and their mothers have a special connection, so it should be no surprise there’s a physiological response there. But the intriguing thing about the results was that the children’s hormones responded in the same positive way, regardless of whether their mothers were critical or supportive of them. “It may not really have anything to do with what mom is saying,” Seltzer says. “It may simply be something like the sound of her voice and she's a trusted person and she's a comforting person.”
Could this be why so many of us feel more isolated, more depressed than ever? Because we’ve been unintentionally cheating our bodies of a certain level of oxytocin that we’ve evolved over centuries to expect?
For me, it’s a natural conclusion, but clearly the topic needs to be studied further, and Seltzer agrees. “That would be a really cool study…texting is not really the same thing as verbal or in-person interaction,” she says. “It's missing something. And it doesn't have quite the same stress-relief effects [or] the same oxytocin boost as interacting in person.”
Seltzer commented that her studies on the topic hadn’t received much interest from the press and there’s been a striking lack of additional studies on the topic. Hopefully, these early clues can ignite further interest in researching the potential connection between this enormous shift in our means of communication and the rise of loneliness and depression.
In the meantime, Seltzer thinks that the conclusions her team came to in their 2012 study are of particular relevance in the current political climate. If what people are saying isn’t as important as how they’re saying it, you can imagine how much is lost when communication is boiled down to letters on a screen.
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