“Are you even listening to me?”
It’s a question discouraged parents often ask their distracted teenagers, and the truthful answer is probably “No.”
It’s hard to really blame them. New research on the teenage brain suggests that the reaction we have to certain voices naturally changes over time, making our mother’s voice less valuable.
When scanning children’s brains, these 12-and-under showed an explosive neural response to their mother’s voice, activating reward centers and emotion processing centers in the brain.
Yet, around a child’s 13th birthday, a change occurs.
The mother’s voice no longer generates the same neurological reaction. Instead, the brain of an adolescent, regardless of gender, seems more sensitive to all voices in general, whether new or remembered.
The changes are so obvious that researchers were able to guess a child’s age simply based on how their brain reacted to their mother’s voice.
“Just as a child knows how to tune in to his mother’s voice, a teenager knows how to tune in to new voices,” says psychiatrist Daniel Abrams of Stanford University.
“As a teenager, you don’t know you are doing this. You are just you: you have your friends and new companions and you want to spend time with them. Your mind is increasingly sensitive and attracted to these unknown voices.”
Researchers suspect this is a sign that the teenage brain is developing social skills. In other words, a teenager does not intentionally shut down his family; their brains are maturing in a healthy way.
Many lines of evidence have shown that for young children, a mother’s voice plays an important role in their health and development, impacting their stress levels, social connection, feeding skills, and therapy. word.
So it makes sense that a child’s brain is particularly in tune with their parent’s voice.
However, there comes a time when listening to people other than your mother is more beneficial.
“When teenagers seem to rebel by not listening to their parents, it’s because they’re wired to pay more attention to voices outside their homes,” says neuroscientist Vinod Menon, also from the ‘Stanford University.
The findings build on fMRI findings published by the same team of researchers in 2016, which found that children under 12 show brain circuits that are selectively activated by the mother’s voice.
Extending the study to 22 teenagers, between the ages of 13 and 16.5, however, a mother’s voice doesn’t have quite the same impact.
Instead, all voices heard by adolescents activated neural circuits associated with auditory processing, selecting salient information and forming social memories.
When presented with a recording of their mother’s voice saying three nonsense words, as opposed to a stranger’s voice saying the same thing, the participants’ brain scans actually showed less activation in the centers of brain reward.
The same goes for the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that helps determine what social information is most valuable.
Researchers hope to study the differences between these brain circuits in people with neurological disorders.
In young children, for example, Stanford researchers have found that autistics don’t respond as strongly to their mother’s voice. Knowing more about the underlying neurobiological mechanisms could help us understand how social development occurs.
The results of the current study are the first to suggest that as we age, our hearing focuses less on our mother and more on the voices of a wide variety of people.
The idea is supported by other behavioral and neural studies, which also suggest that reward centers in adolescent brains are marked by heightened sensitivity to novelty in general.
These changes could be key components of healthy social development, allowing adolescents to better understand the perspective and intentions of others.
“A child becomes independent at some point, and that has to be precipitated by an underlying biological signal,” Menon says.
“That’s what we found: It’s a cue that helps teens engage with the world and make connections that allow them to be socially adept outside of their families.”
The study was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
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