Things have changed. Much of the time we used to spend chatting with friends or strangers in person is now spent tweeting, texting or updating our Facebook status.
Although technology allows us to rapidly communicate, how these indirect interactions affect our bodies and minds is not yet known. A new study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests that not all human interactions are created equal – at least not biochemically.
Hormones govern everything about our lives – from fetal development and the uncomfortable coming-of-age we all experience during puberty, to our susceptibility to foods high in sugars, and the inevitable crumbling of our reproductive systems.
Of all the hormones coursing through our bodies, it’s the effect of oxytocin we’re perhaps most familiar with. That’s because oxytocin is the hormone responsible for delivering the euphoric feeling we associate with love.
Among its myriad roles, oxytocin is critical for strengthening bonds between people and reducing stress and anxiety. Without it, we drift towards a more narcissistic, manipulative, reclusive and sociopathic lifestyle. One could easily imagine an Orwellian dystopia should this simple molecule not exist.
Apart from the daily doses of oxytocin our body automatically produces, direct social interactions with people close to us trigger further releases. This is especially helpful after stressful events and explains why we share such personal experiences with close friends and relatives.
The words of support we hear from those close to us trigger a welcome release of oxytocin that reduces our feelings of stress.
But is it the words themselves or the tonal sounds conveying the meaning of those words that provides this comfort?
Hearing what others say
Building on their previous work showing young girls’ stress levels reduced quicker thanks to an oxytocin release after speaking with their mothers, the University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers wanted to determine why this would be the case.
Did the mothers’ comforting words help daughters regain their composure, or was it hearing those words that soothed their stressed souls?
The experiment involved subjecting girls between the ages of seven-and-a-half and 12 to a written test in front of an audience “trained to maintain a neutral facial expression” – a potentially terrifying experience, regardless of age!
After the test, the girls were allowed to either communicate with their mothers directly, over the phone, by texting, or not at all.
The team then measured salivary cortisol levels (a direct measure of stress) and urinary oxytocin levels (the body’s response to stress) to determine how the young girls’ bodies were coping.
Not surprisingly, the girls able to directly interact with their mothers had much lower stress levels and higher oxytocin levels. The girls who only interacted over the phone likewise enjoyed the recuperative effects of oxytocin.
The girls who only texted – thereby reading, not hearing, their mother’s responses – had higher stress levels and lower oxytocin releases, matching those girls not allowed to interact with anyone.
Evolution vs. technology
We’re born into a world where a mother’s voice and a baby’s cooing response results in a cascade of hormones in both parties that sets our course for development. This kind of bond exists because vocal communication is millions of years old, which is the timeframe needed for a connection between our physiology and vocal communication to evolve.
Written communication, by contrast, is comparably young, with the first known case arising approximately 5,000 years ago. This timeframe is simply too short in an evolutionary sense for a similar physiological connection to evolve with text.
Also, textual communication can be ambiguous compared with the tonal nuances used in vocal communication. This in turn means a physiological response to text is even less likely to evolve.
What does this mean? Letting everyone on Facebook know we’ve had a nosebleed, received a promotion or ditched our soulmate is fine for keeping people up to date. But these indirect interactions may lack the underlying physiological responses our bodies require to strengthen our bonds with others.
The long-term result our increasing neglect of vocal communication will have is impossible to imagine, but there’s a reason we want to chat to someone, not text them, after a particularly stressful day.
Although a Shakespearean sonnet can evoke strong emotional responses, it is not the words themselves but hearing them from a lover’s lips that evokes the euphoria within. Not even the most polished prose can deliver the physiological relief we receive upon hearing a mother’s “I’m sure you did great”!