The research builds on a 2016 study by Stanford School of Medicine, which found that kids age 12 and younger can identify their mothers' voices with high accuracy.
Mom helping teenager with homeowrk
Credit: Tom Werner / Getty Images

If you ever feel like your teenager doesn't listen to you, try not to take it too personally: there's a scientific reason behind their selective hearing. At around age 13, kids' brains don't find their moms' voices rewarding and they begin to tune into unfamiliar voices more, according to a new study from the Stanford School of Medicine.

The research, which was published in the Journal of Neuroscience, used brain scans to give the first detailed neurobiological explanation for how children begin to drift from their parents as they enter their teenage years. Researchers recorded the childrens' mothers saying three nonsense words, as well as two unfamiliar women who said the same three words. The children were able to correctly identify their mothers' voices 97 percent of the time, then they were placed in an MRI scanner where they listened to the voice recordings again. They found that among teenagers, all voices elicited greater brain activation compared with younger children.

According to the study, it's not that teenagers purposely tune out their mothers' voices but that their brain's become more receptive to all voices as they mature. With that being said, the reward circuits and brain centers that prioritize important stimuli in teenage minds are more activated by unfamiliar voices than their mothers'. While it may be inconvenient if you're trying to get your child to clean their room or take out the trash, this brain shift is actually a part of healthy maturation, according to the researchers. "Just as an infant knows to tune into her mother's voice, an adolescent knows to tune into novel voices," says lead study author Daniel Abrams, PhD, clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. "As a teen, you don't know you're doing this. You're just being you: You've got your friends and new companions and you want to spend time with them. Your mind is increasingly sensitive to and attracted to these unfamiliar voices."

The new study isn't the first time Stanford researchers have explored the relationship between the brains of children and their mothers' voices. Previous research published in 2016 found that kids 12 and under can identify their maternal figures' voices with high accuracy. They also found that the sound triggers the brain's auditory-processing areas, as well as many areas not responsive to unfamiliar voices, like reward centers, emotional-processing regions, and visual processing centers. The new study built on the 2016 research, adds data from teenagers 13 to 16.5 who were being raised by their biological mothers.

Researchers say that the new study will help them understand what happens in the brains of children with autism and other conditions that impact how they listen to voices and other social stimuli. The team notes that the brain being attuned to voices makes sense, especially when you consider the feeling when you hear a friend or family member's voice after a long time. "The voices in our environment are this incredibly rewarding sound source that allow us to feel connected, included, part of a community and part of a family," Abrams says. "Voices are really what connect us."


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