This is an obligatory topic for students of human nature who understand Homo as a primate endowed of the capacity to develop sophisticated ways to communicate.
At a time when the concept of neocortical inhibition appears as a key to explaining the particularities of human birth, we must emphasize that, after the birth, the maternal neocortex does not come back overnight to its baseline activity. This is confirmed by the particularities of postpartum modes of communication: they have been described but not scientifically investigated.
During the days following birth, mothers—particularly those who have not used pharmacological assistance and don’t feel observed—have a well-known tendency to spontaneously communicate with their baby through “baby talk,” sometimes called motherese. Motherese has a special pattern of intonation. The mother talks in a high-pitched voice. The words are fully articulated. The speech is slowed with a great number of pauses. The sentences are short and often repeated. There is a wide opening of the mouth. There are usually body movements, particularly head movements, that stress certain syllables. Since this simplified language has universal characteristics, one can conclude that it is associated with a reduced cultural conditioning. In other words, this mode of communication is not restrained by a powerful neocortical control.
From Lullabies to Berceuses
Lullabies may be presented as universal variants of baby talk. An authentic lullaby is not composed by a third party. It is improvised at a time when the mother is still in a specific physiological state. It is not accompanied by instruments. The music is simple and repetitive, with long sections between pauses.
After thousands of years of socialization of childbirth, invasive beliefs and rituals have interfered in the mother/baby interaction at such a point that historical studies have a limited interest. Their vocation is to look at variants of the domination of nature since the “Neolithic revolution.” As a general rule, newborn babies have not been in the arms of their mother. They were not in a position to identify the voice of their mother. Immediate tight swaddling was a widespread way to neutralize the archaic sense of touching.
However, we can learn from other perspectives, particularly studies of the roots of the words. Interestingly, the word commonly used in English (lullaby) does not have the same etymological roots, and therefore the same original meaning, as the words commonly used in many other languages. The English word, and also the Russian bayukat, the Serbo-croatian uspavanka, and the Arabic tahwida convey an intention (to lull, to soothe, to calm down). The Spanish term canción de cuna, the German wiegenfield are descriptive of the context (cradle song).
Today, while there is a renewed scientific interest in the development of human sensory functions, it is notable that in a great diversity of languages the focus is on the rocking movements. This is the case of the Russian word kolybel’naia, the Czech ukolébavka, the Armenian ororots and the French berceuse. Berceuse probably comes from barbaric Latin berciolus, derived from berto, a verb suggestive of the action of moving by turning.
The history of furniture confirms that it has been understood for ages that babies need to be rocked. There is evidence that in France, in the Carolingian era, babies could easily be rocked in specially designed cradles made of tree trunks (Violette-de-Luc 1873). After referring to these perspectives suggesting the importance given to the rocking movements, we’ll add that the tempos of lullabies tend to be slow and that, rhythmically, there are shared patterns. Lullabies are usually in triple or 6/8 time, inducing a characteristic swinging or rocking motion. It has been underlined that this is a way to mimic what the baby can perceive in the womb as the mother moves.
The deep-rooted importance given to rocking movements is noteworthy at a time when it is still commonplace to refer to the well-established list of “the five senses”: touching, hearing, smelling, tasting, and seeing. The expression “sixth sense” suggests that there is only one additional sense besides the traditional list: it refers to extrasensory perception of information not gained through the five recognized senses. There is a mysterious cultural tendency to ignore the most primitive and the most universal sensory functions, which are the basis of the sense of balance, spatial orientation, and adaptation to gravity. It is still commonplace to forget at which point we are dependent on the functions of the inner ear (the vestibular system). In 1981, I participated in a collective book in French about the development of human sensory functions. During a preliminary editorial meeting we had established a list of authoritative experts who could write about “the five senses.” At the end of the meeting, when we were ready to go, I just asked a question: “Et le système vestibulaire?” (What about the vestibular system?). This is how, in spite of my low degree of competence, I was asked to write a paper on this topic (Odent 1981).
Our comments about lullabies are opportunities to emphasize once more the importance of interdisciplinary perspectives to study universal aspects of human nature. In the age of overspecialization, it is unusual, for example, to combine what we can learn from etymology (the roots of the words), what we can learn from the history of furniture, and what we can learn from physiology. We’ll complete this overview by recalling that the ear is the only organ of the human body that can reach nearly its adult size during fetal life. By associating appropriate kinds of sounds and rocking movements, lullabies stimulate both the external ear (sense of hearing) and the inner ear (adaptation to gravity and sense of balance). In other words, authentic lullabies satisfy basic human needs at an important phase of development.
As students of human nature, we’ll even dare to present improvised and therefore authentic lullabies as prototypical forms of spontaneous creative behaviour. There have already been attempts to study artistic creativity from physiological perspectives. By using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the authors of a valuable study investigated improvisation in jazz pianists. They found that improvisation (compared with production of learned musical sequences) was consistently characterized by a “transient hypofrontality” (Limb and Braun 2008). This means, in practice, an extensive deactivation of the prefrontal cortex. It is not different from what we call, to simplify, a reduced neocortical control. It is worth underlining that when a mother is improvising a lullaby after releasing an appropriate powerful hormonal flow, she is in an obvious state of transient hypofrontality. There are significant anecdotes of women who, after giving birth without cultural assistance, could not remember having unexpectedly sung improvised lullabies. One can wonder for how long after birth a state of hypofrontality might remain detectable. According to an MRI study of parents watching videos of their own 4- to 6-month-old baby playing, mothers (but not fathers) showed an activation of the amygdala (a primitive part of the brain) (Atzil et al. 2012).
One of the effects—and probably functions—of authentic lullabies is also to transmit an emotional state.
I am tempted to suggest that the most common messages expressed that way belong to the family of transcendent emotional states. Once a mother told me that she saw the whole universe in the eyes of her newborn baby. My own mother used to say that the day of my birth had been the most joyful day of her life. I therefore have personal reasons to include “joy” in this family of emotions. There is a major obstacle in studying joy from a scientific perspective. It is that until now keywords such as “anxiety,” “stress,” “depression,” “psychological distress,” or “fear” have been much more productive than the keyword “joy.”
This is why we must refer to what we can learn from artists, who often precede scientists. It is significant that, in general, artists associate joy with emergence of life and transcendence. In one of her poems, my mother wrote: “Un grand hymne à la joie évoque le Tres-Haut,” which can be translated as “A grand hymn of joy evokes the Almighty.” The poem includes the words printemps (spring), oiseau qui chante (singing bird), and enfant (child). “The Ode to Joy”—now the European anthem—is also highly significant. It is based on the fourth movement of Beethoven’s ninth symphony. One can wonder how the music evokes joy … sudden intermittent series of ascending notes are undoubtedly suggestive of the emergence of life. The original text of the European anthem was the poem written by Friedrich Schiller at the end of the eighteenth century. From the start of the poem, joy is presented as sudden access to the divine: Freude, schöner Götterfunken (Joy, beautiful spark of divinity).
Is there a future for lullabies, for artistic creativity … for joy?
- Atzil, S, et al. 2012. “Synchrony and specificity in the maternal and the paternal brain: Relations to oxytocin and vasopressin.” J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 51(8): 798–811. doi: 10.1016/j.jaac.2012.06.008.
- Limb, CJ, and AR Braun. 2008. “Neural substrates of spontaneous musical performance: an FMRI study of jazz improvisation.” PLoS One 3(2): e1679. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0001679.
- Odent, Madeleine. 1978. “Joie.” In Rayons du soir. Pessac: Les Presses du Monteil.
- Odent, Michel. 1981. “Et le système vestibulaire.” In: Les cahiers du nouveau-né, vol. 5, edited by Etienne Herbinet and Marie-Claire Busnel, 151-54. Paris: Stock.
- Viollet-le-Duc, Eugene. 1873. Dictionnaire raisonné du mobilier français de l’époque carolingienne a la Renaissance. Paris: Librairie centrale d’architecture1: 37–39.