Mom’s voice activates a newborn’s brain

Apr 12, 2011 by

Following the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, philosophers and educationalists for a long time thought that babies are born as a tabula rasa, knowing nothing and open to all possibilities. And when it comes to language, it is clear that nobody is born speaking any particular language. However, research conducted in the last decades by linguists and psychologists alike continues to prove that we are not born as a tabula rasa either. Instead, more and more studies suggest that we are born pre-wired with tools that help us learn our native language. Recent research, reported in Science Daily on December 17, 2010, gives a new meaning to the expression mother tongue and provides novel evidence that we are indeed pre-wired to learn our mother’s language.

A scientific team from the University of Montreal and the Sainte-Justine University Hospital Research Centre performed electrical recordings of brain activity on 16 infants within the 24 hours following their birth. They applied electrodes to the heads of the babies while they were sleeping and asked the baby’s mother to make the short [a] sound. Then the same sound was made by a nurse who brought the baby to the lab. The researchers controlled for the “motherese factor” (the fact that mothers use a special tone of voice when talking to babies) by involving a nurse who is herself a mother, and they also countered the “novelty” aspect by arranging for the mother to meet with the nurse at regular intervals before the birth. Finally, speech analysis was used to ensure that the mother’s voice and the voices of the other woman were sufficiently comparable.

And yet, with all these precautions in place, a baby was still able to recognize her own mother’s voice and differentiate it from the nurse’s voice. When the mother spoke, the scans very clearly showed reactions in the left-hemisphere of the brain, and in particular the language processing and motor skills circuit. Conversely, when another woman spoke, the right-hemisphere of the brain, associated with voice recognition, reacted.

According to Dr. Maryse Lassonde of the University of Montreal’s Department of Psychology and the Sainte-Justine University Hospital Research Centre,

“This is exciting research that proves for the first time
that the newborn’s brain responds strongly to the mother’s voice and shows, scientifically speaking, that the mother’s voice is special to babies.”

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