One of the symptoms of depression is a blunted sensitivity to emotional stimuli. Individuals with depression tend to respond less expressively to events that would ordinarily elicit strong emotions in others. One of these events is a child’s cry. It has been shown that mothers with depression react less emotionally than nondepressed mothers when their babies cry. This has been attributed to the impaired reactivity often exhibited in depression. It has also been thought to be the result of a depressed individual’s inability to distinguish emotions in others.
Babies’ cries have unique pitches and musical intonations. When a mother hears her baby cry, she can usually identify a distress cry from a nondistress cry. But mothers with depression are less able to distinguish the two sounds. Because of the musical characteristics in an infant’s cry, experts have begun to theorize as to whether or not musical training could improve a depressed mother’s ability to accurately identify a distress cry. To explore this further, Katherine S. Young of the Section of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of Oxford in the UK recently led a study that compared the responses of 57 adults with depression and without. Some of the participants had approximately 4 years of musical training and others had no musical education.
Young evaluated the responses of the participants after they were cued to two distress cries and asked to identify which was more distressed. She discovered that the participants with depression and musical training were able to identify the more distressed cry as well as the nondepressed participants with and without musical training. The results also revealed that the depressed participants with no musical education had the most difficulty distinguishing the more distressed cry from the less distressed cry. Young believes these findings could have implications for future research aimed at addressing the emotional response deficits in individuals with depression. Additionally, these results open the avenue for new treatments incorporating musical education for women at risk for postpartum depression. She added, “The strength of this type of intervention is that it could be carried out during pregnancy, before parents have any experience of interacting with their infant.” Overall, these findings offer new insight into the possibilities of diminishing emotional response impairments caused by depressive symptoms.
Young, K. S., Parsons, C. E., Stein, A., Kringelbach, M. L. (2012). interpreting infant vocal distress: The ameliorative effect of musical training in depression. Emotion. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0028705
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