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No, Teens Don’t ’Tune Out’ Mum’s Voice, with Dr Daniel Abrams

No, Teens Don’t ’Tune Out’ Mum’s Voice, with Dr Daniel Abrams

Seen the media reports lately claiming that teens actually tune out their Mum’s voice? The reality is a little more complex.

Clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences (and publishing author of the article that the media are referencing) Dr Daniel Abrams joins me to discuss his research on how voice activates the reward systems in neurotypical and neurodivergent brains.

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Show Notes

You can read about Dr Abrams work here, and the specific research paper discusses here.


Emily: Hello everybody. This week, we are delving a bit into some scientific research. So switch on your learning brain today. I’m sure you have seen a few articles doing the rounds about how teenagers tune out their parents’ voices. I got very interested in this topic. I knew there had to be more to the story, so I decided to reach out to one of the publishing authors, Dr. Daniel Abrams. He is a clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. Their group is conducting research into the brain bases of social communication impairments in children with autism spectrum disorders. And that’s where this paper that’s been doing the rounds that has sort of come about as a, a byproduct of their other research.

So Dr. Abrams has very kindly agreed to join me today to have a chat, and he actually wants to clear up a few misconceptions that I’m sure you’ve seen in the media about his research. So we’ll be talking a bit about autism, and a bit about how language and communication physically affect different parts of the brain and the impacts that that can have on the behavioral outputs of children and teenagers.

Now, obviously this research is more focused on or is more applicable to parenting than teaching, but we can definitely see the flow throughs into what we are doing as educators with the children that are in our care. Enjoy.

All right. Welcome Dan. Thank you for being here today.

Dr Dan Abrams: Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.

Emily: Excellent. I guess we’ll start off with a bit about your background. So how did you get into research? How did you get into the type of research that you’re doing now? Has it always been sort of your trajectory to get to this point?

Dr Dan Abrams: Um, it’s kind of been a long and winding road. I initially did not start out with much of an interest in biology or neuroscience. I actually started out with an interest in sounds and I actually worked in recording studios and did live sound, and I’m actually a pretty lousy musician, which kind of started the whole thing off.

And I was interested in acoustics and I took a job as an acoustical engineer. So in college, I studied to be an engineer and I became an acoustical engineer. And we would work with architects to help design spaces so that they would sound good. For whatever use, it could be a theater or it could be an office and it could be almost anything that requires you to pay attention to sound, to noise levels and whether the room is properly reverberant and the like. And I found it was interesting, but I, I realized I wanted to do something that, that helped people.

And so I took an interest in hearing And that, that just kind of led me on a series of different kinds of positions and interests. And all of a sudden I started studying the ear and then. Just like sound itself. I started with acoustics and made it to the ear. And now I’m in the central nervous system.

Like, you know, the brain, where we study what happens in the brain when people hear things. In particular sounds that are important to them, like speech and music. And then what happens in clinical populations in which hearing function is, kind of impaired in some way. And so that’s kind of the focus of our work now, but I didn’t really start off like this.

This is just where I wound up.

Emily: So you’ve sort of gone from like the very far outside, all the way into the inner mechanics of the brain now.

Dr Dan Abrams: Yeah.

Emily: Yeah. That’s fascinating. I saw a lot of your research is to do with the autism spectrum and young children. What led to that sort of pathway?

Dr Dan Abrams: Well, a lot of people with autism tune out from the vocal world. And so we know that typically developing kids are really tuned into the vocal world. And, you know, for example a child can identify his mother’s voice before they’re even born. Which sounds crazy, but it’s true.

And you know, what’s interesting is, so that kind of tells us how carefully tuned the, the human ear and brain is at the earliest stages of development. And we thought it was really interesting, fascinating how you have people on the spectrum who often have very high intelligence with good language, good readers.

But they still kind of, they tune out from these sounds. And we thought that was a really interesting observation. And we realized we knew very little about why that is. And in particular, we wanted to know how do their brains process vocal sounds and speech sounds differently, and what can that tell us about why they tune, these sounds out. And so autism is a really interesting and important question for examining speech processing. And so this is really the focus of our work. We also do some other fun stuff along the way, like the paper that you contacted me about.

But you know, the main goal of our work is to study and to understand what’s happening in the brain of people with autism when they hear speech sounds. And what can this tell us about their broader social communication deficit?

Emily: Yeah. Right. And do you think that sort of provides a bit more context for people who don’t have autism about how they experience sound? So it’s almost like a bit of a contrast.

Dr Dan Abrams: Yeah. It’s always important to understand kind of what the neurotypical brain is doing before you can really make a whole lot of sense of what’s going on in any clinical population. So for most of our studies they amount to control participants, these are neurotypical kids or adults or whoever, to help us to serve as a contrast for understanding what might be different in people with autism.

So, yeah, we’re always studying neurotypical folks, as well for any study that we’re doing in people with autism.

Emily: Yeah. Perfect. So the research that I contacted you about that sort of went a bit, bit viral in the media. The, the headlines all resolve around this concept that the teenagers are tuning out their mother’s voices once they hit teenagehood and the implications of, of that. So would you mind explaining a bit about that, that research process and then the results that you’ve found with these teenagers.

Dr Dan Abrams: Yeah. So there’s a bunch of clarifications that I need to do, you know, and sometimes the media can kind of latch onto a little thing and run with it in a way that doesn’t really reflect what happened in science. So I hope I can kind of clear some of that up. You realize that your science can sometimes turn into someone’s click bait pretty quickly.

And so, we were interested that the original kind of studies geared around. You know, we know that adolescence is a time of great change, right? And in particular for this study, you know, the social world changes a lot for adolescences, right? I mean, we all know this, we went through it.

It looks different when you’re on the parents’ end and when it’s just you, you just kind of do your thing and the world is changing, but you don’t fully kind of comprehend it. But you know, when you’re on the outside, looking in at a teenager, you see all of a sudden they shift their social attention from their parents to their friends or novel social partners. And this is like a crucial part. And you can ask just about any parents of teenagers how pronounced this is. But we knew very little about what’s changing in the adolescent brain that kind of underlies this behavior.

Emily: So trying to find a biological cause rather than looking at it from a social sort of aspect.

Dr Dan Abrams: Yeah, sure. We already know. I mean this isn’t exactly groundbreaking news from a social aspect. Like everybody knows that teenagers really start tuning into their peers and their friends and really kind of seeking them out for social support and in ways that they really didn’t as younger kids.

And so it’s not really news from a social standpoint, but we didn’t know very much or anything about what brain systems and what changes in the brain underlie this really pronounced social change in an, in an adolescent life. And so we’d actually performed and published a study about five years ago that showed that in younger kids, so probably seven to 12 year olds. When they hear a brief sample of their mother’s voice compared to an unfamiliar voice, there’s this really kind of, impressively large kind of response in their brain. And in particular, in hearing a mother’s voice compared to an unfamiliar voice in younger kids activates these parts of the brain that we call the reward centers of the brain.

And I could spell out a number of them, one of called the nucleus succumbs. And another one is called oribital frontal cortex and medial prefrontal cortex. And for the lay audience who may or may not be interested in all the gory details. These are the parts of the brain that are active when you anticipate and experience reward.

So for example, if you happen to like chocolate.

Emily: And you see a chocolate bar…

Dr Dan Abrams: see a chocolate bar or you eat chocolate, then this reward system, this reward pathway in your brain becomes very active and, hearing all kinds of sounds can also activate the reward pathway. For example, when you hear your favorite music and you get the chills, that’s your reward pathways is shown to be very active for those sounds. And in this paper from five years ago, we showed that when younger kids hear their mother’s voice, they show activity in these brain regions as well. And the important contrast in that study was this is mother’s voice compared to unfamiliar voices saying the exact same thing.

And so we very carefully controlled everything. And so that showed this preference for mother’s voice compared to unfamiliar voices in this reward system. And then we ask the question, well, I wonder what happens as kids get older? You know, here we know that they have all these kind of social changes that happen across development.

And so in the newer paper that just came out this year, we did the exact same study, but we brought in 13 to 16 year olds

And then we looked at what differences as a function of age, you know? Well, what happens in the brain? How do preferences for these different vocal categories, mother’s voice and unfamiliar voices, change as a function of child age?

And what we found was that there’s this switch in the reward pathway with adolescents that whereas younger kids show a preference for mother’s voice compared to unfamiliar voices in the reward pathway, we found the opposite is the case in adolescents. Which is that adolescents show a preference for unfamiliar voices compared to mother’s voice in the reward system. So we show this, this kind of switch in this reward pathway that is associated with age.

Emily: And that’s right down at like the brain level. This isn’t anything to do, like controllable behavior. This is literally their brain doing this.

Dr Dan Abrams: Yeah, this is their reward system in their brain doing this. Yeah. So we showed this. And so these stimuli really, they’re these brief little stimuli, like they’re only like a second, not even a second of these voices. They’re hearing just these little snippets of speech produced by both their mother and by these unfamiliar voices. And so that’s what we showed in the study and we think the results are super interesting on their own.

I think it’s been interpreted in some of the articles that we’ve seen published in the lay press that this means that adolescents aren’t, you know, listening to their parents or whatever. There’s nothing further from the truth. We know for a fact how important parents continue to be in the lives of adolescence and we know that they are listening.

And I mean, as a parent of two adolescent boys myself, I can tell you with certainty that this is important a time as any for kids and parents to communicate. And for parents to, to continue to communicate with their kids. It may not always be as easy as you would like, but, you know, but they’re definitely listening and they definitely need your support and, you know, parents support and they need that communication about all, all the complicated things that happen during adolescence.

Emily: So, don’t look at these articles as a reason to say, well, nothing I say is gonna get through to them anyway, cuz that’s just not true.

Dr Dan Abrams: Yes, no, that is, that is certainly not the message we are hoping anyone gets out of this. What we’re trying to show is that, you know, this very particular part of the brain that’s associated with reward processing shows this interesting switch as a function of development. Whereas a mother’s voice for young child, compared relative to unfamiliar voices, it elicits this reward response that this switches in adolescence, that doesn’t mean anything about their kind of listening. It is a interesting property of what is kind of rewarding. What kids are seeking.

And I think it kind of reflects what these different groups of listeners and these different age rages are kind of drawn to, you know? And so that’s how we kind of interpret those results. We think that it’s adaptive like we interpret it as being an important part of evolution.

You know, you have to find a mate outside of your family. And at some level you need to move outside of your family to make new social partners and connect with different people. And so we think that this is kind of a reflection of that. Just kind of naturally tuning into different sound sources and vocal sources.

Emily: And, feeling that reward from that.

Dr Dan Abrams: Exactly. So that’s how we interpret the results

Emily: And would you expect similar results regarding a father’s voice versus a mother’s voice? Assuming that, you know, both parents have had equal contact with the child growing up all that sort of thing, would you expect it to be similar?

Dr Dan Abrams: We would. Yes. The reason we only studied mother’s voices. There’s kind of a long and storied literature in the behavioral literature about the importance of mother’s voice. This literature kind of started at a time when fathers, I think generally spent less time with their kids than mothers did, back in the sixties and seventies.

And of course that’s even a generalization. But you know, we’ve we get that question a lot. We would anticipate that a mother or father or anyone that is a close caregiver, and someone that provides love and support to a child. I think we would anticipate anyone who’s really close in to the child in those capacities would, their voice would show a similar response as the ones we’ve shown for mother’s voice.

Emily: And do you think it could be related to that emotional bond that relates to the reward system lighting up versus like the actual physical sound of the voice? So separating the emotions from the, I guess the physical sound, does that make sense?

Dr Dan Abrams: Yeah, so I do think that the rewarding nature of a mother’s voice, for example, initially stems, you know, we hypothesize that it stems from the early caregiver years, right?

When an infant is born, they begin to associate mother’s voice with care, love, food, protection, All those things that a mother provides and that fathers provide too, although, you know, in different, in some different ways there.

But, we think that initially stems from this immediate association between hearing a mother’s voice and all the kind of rewarding stimulate that accompany a mother’s voice for an infant. And then that kind of morphs obviously, that changes during child development, but nonetheless, young kids, they still are are very closely attached to their parents and in the social world revolves around them very much.

And we know that that a mother’s voice continues to be rewarding stimulus even for older kids. Not in as much into adolescence, but that literature kind of stops at elementary school age kids. We do think that the voice that they’re hearing that it’s the association of the voice with a close, emotional bond.

Emily: So it’s kind of that biology of the brain linking in with the social aspect, and sort of training that reward system over time.

Dr Dan Abrams: Yes.

Emily: So do you think if there was another adult that had a very similar sounding voice, would it elicit a similar response? Just inadvertently because of the sound?

Dr Dan Abrams: Well, I would imagine as long as the child is able to distinguish that voice from their parents, from their mother’s voice, then I would assume it wouldn’t be rewarding, you know?

Emily: As significant. Yeah.

Dr Dan Abrams: I mean, we don’t think it’s just simply that the acoustical proximity of, or we don’t think that an unfamiliar voice will become increasingly rewarding as it approaches mom’s voice. That’s my sense. My sense is when you recognize your mom’s voice, you have this response and it’s a matter of recognition. And by the way, we did behavior on all these kids and it was very easy for all of our kids and adolescence to recognize their mother’s voice.

So that was never in question, even though they just, we just had these little brief snippets, less than a second of vocal information. They could easily identify. Oh, that’s plenty. They had no trouble, you know, there are 95% for identifying their mother’s voice. And so we really think that it is, you know, as long as you’re able to recognize that it’s your mother, then it’s gonna light up.

And I think the question you’re asking is a good one, which is, if it sounds close to your mother, I would imagine that as long as you can recognize that it’s not your mother, no matter how close or how far away, it’s not going to elicit the same kind of response.

For example, you can imagine if you heard someone that kind of sounded like one of your friends, but you knew it wasn’t your friend, you would not,

Emily: You don’t react in the same way.

Dr Dan Abrams: You’re not gonna react the same way. Exactly.

Emily: And do you see any link to the classroom setting with teachers, do you think that there’s any sort of, of flow through that teachers could use this information? Maybe not, maybe not even teachers, but even educational researchers, for example.

Dr Dan Abrams: Hmm. That’s an interesting question. I guess one of the important messages that I think we like to provide, and it’s not really specific to educators, but it’s kind of for everyone to kind of digest is the fact that, I think it’s important to realize that, as adolescents go through this stage of development and they’re super tuned into their peers we think that this is a very normal and natural thing. And maybe this is a partially message for educators. I’m sure it’s very difficult to teach a classroom full of adolescence. I’ve never had to do that. And I know that doing things with small groups of adolescents can be challenging because they’re so focused on each other and they’re so tuned into each other and they probably have a really hard time not tuning into each other during things like in classroom.

Emily: And that’s at the brain level, like the actual biological brain level with that reward system lighting up for each other.

Dr Dan Abrams: Yeah. And I guess that that’s kind of maybe one of the messages, which is, you know, don’t take it personally if people are tuning into their friends and to their peers, to the exclusion of other people, including parents and probably educators as well. At this stage of development, they’re really locked in on new voices and peers voices, and, and their friends in particular.

And so maybe the message is to understand that this is a normal phase of development. This is normal behavior. Try not to take it personally, you know.

Emily: It’s them not you.

Dr Dan Abrams: Yeah. And I think that’s been another kind of thing that’s come up in the popular media surrounding the publication and the study is kind of how, you know, I guess one of the messages we’re trying to convey is just try not to take it personally. This is a normal stage of development and this is normal behavior. And now we know a little bit about what the brain is doing that underlies this behavior. So just to kind of acknowledge what this stage of development is. No one is telling, this is just what their brain is telling them to do and what, what development is telling them to do.

And just as a young child, you don’t have to tell a young child to tune into their mom’s voice. They just do it because that’s what they’re supposed to do at this phase of development. We see this kind of in a similar vein, adolescence tune into these novel voices and peer voices because that’s what they’re supposed to do. This is what the stage of development is telling them and their, their biology is telling them to do. And I think that’s kind of a, that might be useful thing to keep in mind for everyone who’s interacting with adolescents on any kind of regular basis.

Emily: There’s no conscious decision making happening here. It’s just it’s it just happens.

Dr Dan Abrams: Yes,

Emily: Yep. Do you think that this, this study that you’ve just done would be mirrored in the population of teenagers with autism? Like would their reward system behave in the same way in this context.

Dr Dan Abrams: Actually that’s precisely the next paper that we hope to publish. We’ve collected these data in adolescence with autism as a comparison group to the one that we just published recently. And the preliminary results are that these really pronounced patterns that we see in neurotypical kids, and adolescents are not mirrored in individuals with autism.

So again, I wanna caution, we haven’t gone through peer review and so they’re preliminary results. So I don’t wanna kind of overstate anything at the moment, but, the preliminary findings are that we’re not seeing the same patterns, and that we hope to kind of flesh that out a little bit more.

But that will be kind of the next study that we hope to publish. So, yeah, it is an important question. The reason this is an important question in the context of autism is that, you know, autism is a developmental disorder, you can’t think about it in isolation. To truly kind of understand and comprehend autism you have to think about it in terms of development.

Emily: Yep.

Dr Dan Abrams: Because the autism that’s expressed in a nine year old is gonna be quite different than how it’s expressed as a 16 year old. And it’s this kind of moving target. That’s constantly interacting with development in different ways.

And so it’s important to think about not just kind of kids with autism, but to think about the spectrum of developmental changes that happen across childhood and into adolescence. And to understand how these changes these patterns, for example, the pattern that we showed in our paper that we’re talking about here and to examine whether these patterns are also evident in individuals with autism.

So it’s this moving target. So that’s why this is such important work for understanding autism. And so we hope that that study is able, you know, we’re able to move that study along soon. Maybe we’ll talk about it next time.

Emily: Yeah, for sure. Excellent. Is there anything else that you wanted to touch on to get out there that people may not have heard about or read about?

Dr Dan Abrams: No, I think we’ve kind of covered everything that I would hope to cover. And I, you know, I, I really appreciate your interest in our work. And I hope I’ve answered some questions and I hope parents have learned that their kids are definitely listening at all ages.

Emily: They’re just maybe not getting rewarded for doing so.

Dr Dan Abrams: It may be less rewarding along the way. Exactly.

Emily: Yeah. Yeah. Perfect. Thank you so much for this. I know these articles have done the rounds in all of the Facebook teaching groups that I’m in. And I think that the way that you’ve explained this and cleared up these misconceptions that are being portrayed by the media is gonna be really, really helpful to a lot of teachers to know that, you know, they’re not actually physically not listening to you.

They’re just not getting as much of a biological reward doing so.

Dr Dan Abrams: Correct. I think that’s a wonderful way of putting it. Yeah.

Emily: Alright, so I guess just to end, just a little bit of a fun question. Do you have a teacher that influenced you when you were younger or maybe a professor or somebody.

Dr Dan Abrams: Well, I’ve been like wildly influenced and impressed by so many of my mentors. So that kind of goes without saying how much, like my dissertation mentor, Nina Krause has meant to me and my postdoctoral mentor of Bernard Menon has meant to me. And, I guess one thing I’d like to give a shout out about is that I had a biology teacher and I couldn’t get above a C in biology when I was in middle school. And once in a while I think about that class and I’m like, I can’t believe it. I’m. Neuroscientist and I guess .

And so to anyone that’s listening that may be giving up hope because they couldn’t get a good grade in an important class. And I worked so hard in that class and it was, it was this constant bummer that I could never crack, you know, an a or, or even a, a high B in that class. So anyway, I think about that person there, it’s motivating in different ways.

Emily: You didn’t get what you wanted to in the class, but now you are a literal neuroscientist.

Dr Dan Abrams: it’s, it’s a little strange to say that, but yes.

Emily: All right. Perfect. Thank you so much for all of your information today and for taking the time to, to have a chat.

Dr Dan Abrams: Thank you so much.


If you’d like to continue the conversation, come and join us over on Facebook in the group called The Teacher Community by Staffroom Stories. And you can also find us on Facebook and Instagram @StaffroomStories. You can also check out the blog for full podcast, episode transcripts, as well as articles about a whole range of other staffroom topics.

If you liked what you heard today, I’d love for you to tell your friends and colleagues about this podcast. And if you would leave me a review or whatever service you’re listening through, this helps others to find us. Thank you for gifting me some time out of your day. I hope the rest of it treats you.

Photo by Katsiaryna Endruszkiewicz on Unsplash


Emily is a secondary science and math teacher in Australia. She enjoys sharing the real and human teacher life, facilitating the ‘light bulb’ moment in her students, and drinking tea and wine.

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