Monday, November 18, 2013

Explaining the emotional baby: Mirror neurons at work?

Have you seen this YouTube video?

It's absolutely fascinating how a baby at only 10 months already seems to be moved to tears by music (See video at 0:35 and 1:10). But why does it happen? And why does it only work for this song? Here's a possible explanation based on my research in the emotional similarity between music and voice.

In short, certain parts of that song sound like crying (e.g. 0:30). If you've ever seen videos of parents who have lost their children, they cry out in intense grief, voice pitch shooting up and down like a roller coaster. The song in the video above contains octave jumps, just like Adele's tear-inducing Someone Like You (Listen Here). The table in this paper by Banse and Scherer (p. 617) shows that "Grief Desperation" voices have, in particular, a extremely large frequency range and high-frequency energy (created by a clenched throat). This is the same vocal signature of crying, an innate "distress" sound that we make when we are born, accompanied by tears.

So why does listening cause us to cry? According to what we know about mirror neurons, listening to a song seems to activate the same places in the brain that are active when singing. In other words, when the mom is singing, the baby could be mimicking her mother's pitch jumps in her own brain (and possibly own vocal tract?), activating the same motor neurons used when she cries.

Why does the baby seem to smile at the same time? I'd venture to guess that the mommy is looking at the baby with a big smile while singing, and facial imitation is happening simultaneously.

What do you think? Does your own throat get tight when you hear other people give distraught speeches? How about during Adele's song? Does it look to you like the baby wells up with tears at the octave jumps?

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