What distinguishes mammals from other critters? Well what first comes to mind is birthing live offspring and nursing their young. Recently I heard again another characteristic, mammals have two tiny middle ear bones, and these two smallest bones in the body are coordinated by the two smallest muscles. But why? Well mammals are largely social creatures and even those who are more solitary as adults begin life very dependent on their mothers, creating a social, emotional and physiological bond. The little ones have to communicate their needs and their mamas have to understand that communication and respond appropriately. Here’s where the little bones come in.
Sound is made of vibrations. The vibrations of sound are exquisitely attended to by the middle ear; which allows us to hear prosody, the changes in intonation and pitch that emotionally communicate moods, states and intentions. The middle ear is designed to attend to communication at that subtle level. When we feel safe in relationship with another, our limbic (mammalian) brain wants to understand all the nuances and we take in lots of information about the other and adjust our behavior so we can be a part of the tribe or pack. Imagine that cute little critter snuggled against its Mama cooing, chortling or whimpering. Mama adjusts her behavior to his/her needs and vocalizes back. But if the situation suddenly turns dangerous the middle ear information and those sweet little babbles are ignored. All of the auditory energy becomes focused on picking up information from the background, sweeping outward, assessing the danger.
You may have noticed it when you were worried or afraid; you couldn’t quite take in or understand the words or meaning of the voice next to you. It just couldn’t compete with the sounds of traffic or machinery or the talk of others. Our old reptilian brain always trumps the newer more complex functions, of our mammal brain. Because what’s all important is, are we safe? Yes, stress makes it a bit harder to connect, to be social, to feel safe and we lose the ability to tune into prosody, the intonations in speech.
Me, I love wordless vocalization; I love to play the game of speaking gibberish, when I must increase my prosody to get a message across. I find it satisfying, fun, silly and all the better if someone else engages with me in these nonsense sounds. We rekindle closeness, the kind without words, our meaning more elemental and less abstract. I invite you to try it, leave the logic or your left brain for a mini holiday of silliness and sensation and mammalian communication.