Have you ever noticed that you can tune out instrumental music and even song lyrics if the radio is playing in the background while you’re at work, but you find yourself trying to listen in to conversations that take place in more hushed tones? It could well be that you want to focus on that whisper because of a deeply ingrained survival instinct.
Whispering Is a Human Trait
Humans are the only species that are known to use whispering as a means of communication—some other primates do use something similar to whispering, though—and also the only species that is known to suffer from functional aphonia, a condition where a person can only whisper and not use their vocal cords properly.
It is thought that there are two reasons why someone may only use whispering to communicate, both psychological. One is purely based on fears while the other is caused by the desire to protect the vocal cords after coughing.1
The ability of humans to modulate their voices and whisper when necessary is an important part of human development.2 Humans whisper to communicate without being heard, which is partially a cultural phenomenon and partially a survival instinct. Talking loudly when predators are around would not be sensible after all.
Voices and Survival
Being quiet is not the only factor that matters for survival. Humans also need to be able to listen and discern threats. This is why certain noises are more distracting than others. If humans hear a sudden loud noise, they instinctively turn to look for the source. If humans hear something that sounds like footsteps, they might use part of the brain to determine whether they are coming closer.
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The same goes for voices. If there are a couple of people talking nearby, you can listen to the conversation easily and pick out each voice. In fact, it’s likely that you will instinctively do so because it is a habit to “decode” sounds. If you’re not actually paying attention to the conversation, then it won’t take up much processing power in your brain. Instead, you will understand and then throw out the conversation.
However, it is much harder to listen to multiple voices, and that’s why it is distracting to try to work when there are a few people talking around you. That’s why people use white noise to drown out such distractions.3
Whispering is hard to listen to as well. The ears hear the whisper, and the brain processes it but has to work harder to do so, which means that you’re more likely to stop what you’re doing and devote more mental energy to listening to the whisper.
Whispers are an autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) trigger for some people, too.4 ASMR is a response that some people experience when exposed to soft noises, tapping, whispers, and crinkling. It is a calming and pleasurable sensation that can help reduce anxiety, clear the mind, and promote sleep. It works because the sounds are subtle and unpredictable enough to force people to pay attention to them.
Humans Operate on Instinct
A lot of what humans do is managed by old survival instincts. There is evidence to suggest that a deep, strong voice is a desirable quality for a leader to have.5 Historically, having a leader that was physically strong was good because it helped ensure the survival of the tribe.
Today, physical strength is much less important, but there is still an unconscious bias towards those who have deeper voices. Even when choosing between women, studies show that people are more likely to trust the leadership of the female with the deepest voice.
The same applies to ASMR triggers. The ASMR phenomenon is one that is thought to relate to the way that humans bond with their offspring and with each other. Humans soothe upset children by hugging and kissing them and by talking to them in soft voices, or even in a whisper. This triggers the release of serotonin, oxytocin, and other similar stress-reducing substances. This creates bonds between parent and child and has beneficial biological effects.
Whispering requires the person to listen more closely. The person you are talking to is more likely to listen, understand, and remember what you have to say. It can be difficult to remain calm when speaking, especially about upsetting subject matters, but it is a useful communication skill to have and one that will make all of your interpersonal relationships better on a biological level.
PhotoCredits: DeanDrobot/shutterstock.com, JacobLund/shutterstock.com