Why does this baby cry when her mother sings?
By Siu-Lan Tan
This mesmerizing video has received over 21 million views, and is spreading rapidly through social media.
The baby is 10 month-old Mary Lynne Leroux, who weeps as her mother Amanda sings My Heart Can’t Tell You No, a song most recently popularized by Sara Evans.
Is this baby moved to tears by her mother’s soulful singing?
I have some hunches about this viral video — though nothing that will diminish the marvel of this scene. In the end, we may conclude that the video is even more magical than it first appears…
What we may be witnessing is a remarkable demonstration of emotional contagion, the tendency for humans to absorb and reflect the intense emotions of those around them. Emotional contagion is the foundation of human responses that are essential to social functioning (such as empathy), and is facilitated by the mirror neuron system in the brain.
It is shown in young infants’ tendency to cry when in the vicinity of another crying baby (known as contagious crying), and just as easily to mimic the joy or glee expressed by another person. Emotional contagion may also be seen in the blank stares of infants of depressed mothers or fathers, reflecting their caregivers’ flat affect (emotionally unexpressive faces)
Parents also imitate their infants’ expressions. Infants begin to show a ‘social smile’ by about six to eight weeks of age, and this in turn also triggers more smiling in parents. This moment-to-moment mimicry and matching of emotional expressions in time is emotional synchrony — like ‘getting in step’ with each other, to dance together in a smooth interaction.
What does this have to do with the video?
At the beginning of the video, the mother begins with three spoken sentences. The melody of her voice goes upward at the very end of every sentence: “Mummy’s going to sing you a song…? You want mummy to sing a song, honey? Let me know how you feel about this song, okay?”
Although the infant is not yet verbal, her mother pauses after each question as she would with a speech partner. The mother is essentially inviting the infant into a performance, and the infant responds with smiles and rapt attention.
This orientation to each other is important in establishing the optimal conditions for emotional contagion and synchrony. The singing begins. We cannot see the mother in the video. But when she’s singing, I imagine the emotional expression on her face to be intense as she sings soulfully about loss and longing. The infant immediately mimics this concentrated facial expression (emotional contagion).
The infant shows a yearning and pain in her face way beyond her years, because for the moment she is ‘borrowing’ her mother’s emotion from the song. At the end of each phrase, the mother’s facial muscles probably relax as she takes a new breath—in tandem, we see that the infant also smiles and relaxes at the end of every phrase (emotional synchrony). The depth of this infant’s responses is notable; infants differ from each other as much as adults do, and not every infant shows emotional responses to the same degree.
So does the song itself have no effect?
On the contrary, I believe the singing plays a very important role in this scenario. In daily interactions, emotional expressions are fleeting. Smiles or frowns might flash across the face, constantly changing with speech and environmental cues. But when singing a slow-paced song, facial expressions are shown as if in slow motion—or even as if suspended in time—probably intensifying the effects of emotional contagion.
The structure of the song is also important. In contrast to the mother’s invitation to the song, consisting of three sentences that each rose up in pitch at the end—this song is made up of phrases that generally have a bell-shaped melody. In other words, the melody tends to rise up towards a few high tones, and then has a pronounced downward sweep.
This bell-shaped melody approximates a ‘wailing’ contour that we see in some song structures for (both improvised and composed) mourning songs around the world. It is possible that the ‘wailing’ bell-shaped contour of the phrases of this song may also communicate emotion to the infant, perhaps reflecting ‘emotional contagion’ through vocal cues.
The highest pitches seem to evoke the strongest responses (and tears) in the infant, not only because the greatest musical intensity comes at the peak of a melody—but also perhaps as the highest tones correspond with the most concentrated facial expressions of the singer.
In the closing moments of the video, the mother soothes the infant with her speech. In contrast to the arousing rising inflections before the song, the melody of the speech now descends (like a downward staircase): ”It’s just a song. It’s just a song.” Amanda Leroux demonstrates that emotional speech is a version of song.
Does this analysis make the video any less magical?
In my view, it may be even more remarkable and more compelling to think that what we are witnessing may not just be the power of the human voice and singing—but a window into how deeply and powerfully we are moved by the emotions of those around us, even in our earliest interactions.
Emotional contagion induced by film characters on screen (especially in close-ups of the face)—and sensitivity to rising and falling melodies in film scores, as well as speech contours – are also mechanisms by which films take us on an emotional journey. If filmed while watching a movie, you might catch yourself mimicking facial expressions of the characters, even though nobody is responding to your smiles and grimaces in the dark.
Mary Lynne Leroux at 10 months is ‘in tune’ with her mother in more ways than one—through her, we are reminded of how we are inherently social and emotional beings, as well as musical ones.
So why does this baby cry when her mother sings?
For all the same reasons that we are moved when we watch the mother’s emotions so powerfully reflected in the face of this infant.
Siu-Lan Tan, is Associate Professor of Psychology at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, USA. She is primary editor of The Psychology of Music in Multimedia (Oxford University Press 2013), the first book consolidating the research on the role of music in film, television, video games, and computers. A version of this article also appears on Siu-Lan Tan’s blog entitled What Shapes Film: Elements of the Cinematic Experience on Psychology Today.