According to one of the most important theories in psychology, called attachment theory, being close to a person who loves and supports us in times of need evokes a sense of security that allows us to explore the world around us. But can this sense of security also give us “superpowers”, such as an improved sense of hearing? To test this, we conducted an experiment in which we performed two hearing tests: one was a regular test and, in the other, participants looked at a picture of a trusted loved one. The results were very surprising—when the participants looked at a picture of their loved one, their threshold for hearing was significantly better. So, the next time you try to hear a whisper, try to imagine the face of someone you love—you might be able to hear better.
Psychology is a science in which we try to study human behaviors and experiences in the laboratory, so that we can explain them. This article deals with a laboratory study we conducted in a field of psychology known as attachment theory. Before we dive into the details of the study, we will explain what attachment theory is and tell you about the topic that we wished to investigate.
How Does Attachment Affect Development?
Imagine a small baby who comes into the world completely helpless—vulnerable, unable to protect himself from dangers, and fearful because the world is full of things he does not understand. How does he manage to deal with his fears, stay alive, and learn how to protect himself against danger? We all know how—with the help of his parents or another adult who loves him, feeds him, protects him, calms him down, and nurtures his learning skills (Figure 1).
According to attachment theory (we will refer to it as “the theory” from here on), which was developed by the English psychiatrist John Bowlby  in the middle of the 20th century, babies are born with a readiness to be close to people who are willing and able to protect and support them in times of danger and threat. These people are called attachment figures in the theory.
The baby’s goal is to feel protected and safe. The baby needs his parents to pick him up, hug him, and provide for his basic needs such as food and diapering. However, to explore the world, learn new things without fear, and build his personality, the baby also needs his parents to give him the feeling that there is someone to trust and that he is not alone in the world. According to the theory, this feeling is called attachment security. A baby who grows up with parents or other adults who give him this feeling will allow himself to take risks, explore the world around him, learn, feel good, and make friends . But if, for some reason, the baby does not trust his attachment figures, his world might be scary, harsh, and threatening, and he will find it difficult to explore the world with ease and openness .
To illustrate, imagine a baby learning to walk. At first, he takes a few steps and falls. He gets hurt, and now he is afraid to keep trying. Naturally, the baby will look toward his parents. If he finds a reassuring look and a loving and relaxed attitude that conveys the message “we are here for you, we believe in you, and you can count on us”, he will probably get up and keep trying.
Security Makes Us Independent
Does a baby constantly need a loving and supportive person close by to feel safe to explore the world and learn new things? According to the theory, the answer is no . If we constantly needed a loving person by our side, we would be unable to go out into the world and grow. Instead, we would become dependent on them and unable to learn how to face challenges on our own. The theory holds that a baby not only benefits from a close and loving relationship with attachment figures, but also creates what we call internal working models- a system of beliefs and expectations regarding the warm treatment he will receive from these figures in the future . In other words, the baby learns and remembers how the attachment figures took care of him, and he feels assured that he will receive this same caring treatment in the future as well, if he needs it. In this way, the attachment figures still exist in his heart and mind, even when he is not around them.
Therefore, although a small baby needs his parents close by when he begins to take his first steps, he can do the rest of the learning alone. He does not need to constantly be physically close to his parents, because his memory of his parents as loving and supportive figures exists in his mind and can provide the sense of security that he needs.
We Need Security Throughout Life
What happens to a baby when it grows into a child, a teenager, and an adult?
According to the theory, the need to be close to a loved one accompanies us throughout life. The sense of security provided by an attachment figure will make us feel and function at our best, even when we are adults and no longer dependent on our parents .
Even as we get older, expectations of future support based on memories of past support we received from attachment figures allow us to feel safe, even without being around them. It is often enough to look at a picture of a loved one, think about them, or remember a situation in which we felt loved. Even this action can help us to experience a sense of security, which allows us to relax, take risks, and explore the world openly and with full attention. Many studies have shown that this feeling of security allows children, teenagers, and adults to begin friendships, persist in their studies even when things get difficult, form and keep relationships, apply for jobs, and pay calm attention to their surroundings .
Could A Feeling Of Security Affect Hearing?
As psychology researchers, we asked ourselves this question: If we know that a feeling of security allows children, teenagers, and adults to feel and function their best, will generating that feeling also allow them to sense the world better—specifically to hear better? If we asked a wide range of adults to look at pictures of or think about people who make them feel loved and safe, would it enable them to be more “open” to the world, and thus hear sounds that they would not otherwise hear?
For this purpose, we planned a unique experiment , which consisted of three stages. In the first stage, we recruited 59 participants: 29 students in the 20–35 age range and 30 older people in the 60–75 age range. Each participant was instructed to bring a picture of an attachment figure that made them feel safe and secure. Our instructions were: “The photo should be a loved one. Someone you feel you can trust, who will be there for you if you need anything, who will understand what you need and respond accordingly”. In the next two stages of the experiment, we asked the participants to undergo routine hearing tests, conducted with a testing device called an audiometer. The hearing tests allowed us to examine the participants’ openness to the world around them, as manifested by an improvement in the sense of hearing (lower hearing thresholds).
In each of the hearing tests, the participants sat in front of a touch screen that displayed an image. In the first test, the participants looked at the image of their loved one (Figure 2) and, in the second test, they looked at either an empty circle or a picture of an unfamiliar stranger of the same gender and age as the person in the picture they brought with them. The participants were asked to touch the screen each time they heard a sound.
During the test, we played sounds in a variety of tones (like musical notes ranging from low to high), once to the right ear and once to the left. We played the sounds at a very high volume and gradually made them softer. When the participant did not respond, we assumed they did not hear the sound. We then turned up the sound until the participant responded, and then turned it down again until they did not. We did this several times. At the end of the process, we determined each participant’s hearing threshold, that is, the lowest volume that they could hear. The experiment was conducted by a professional who performs medical hearing tests as part of her job, however, she did not know when participants were looking at a picture of their loved ones and when they were looking at a picture of a stranger or an empty circle.
The results of the experiment were exciting and surprising. Compared to looking at a picture of a stranger (or an empty circle), looking at a picture of an attachment figure improved the hearing (lower hearing thresholds) of participants by an average of two decibels among both the group of students and the group of older people (Figure 3)—a statistically significant difference. For older adults in particular, a two-decibel improvement may increase the ability to understand a conversation . It is important to note that this improvement in hearing was found in both participants’ ears, and for all the different sounds played. That is, the symbolic presence (a picture) of a loved one was enough to make participants in our study hear sounds that they were not able to hear before. We gave them the superpower of hearing! This study is the first of its kind ever carried out in the field.
These results show that a sense of attachment security, even one that we get from a picture, not only allows us to relax but can also cause our senses (in this case hearing) to open to the world. We hope that, in the future, researchers will examine whether a sense of attachment security also improves the functioning of other senses—sight, touch, taste, and smell, and if images of non-human attachment figures, such as a pet, can also benefit our senses.
In conclusion, love seems to help us experience the world in new ways. When we feel safe and loved, we not only feel better, but also hear better.
Attachment Theory: ↑ A concept in psychology that emphasizes the importance of early emotional bonds between a child and their caregivers, shaping future relationships and emotional wellbeing.
Attachment Figures: ↑ Individuals who provide a child with emotional security and support when that child deals with threats and challenges. Parents, friends, teachers, and caregivers are possible examples.
Attachment Security: ↑ The sense that the world is a safe place and that we can explore the world with confidence that our attachment figures will be there to support us when needed.
Internal Working Models: ↑ A system of beliefs about an attachment figure (is she well-intentioned? Can she be trusted?) that reflects responses to the individual’s need for closeness and support.
Audiometer: ↑ A medical device that checks hearing thresholds, to diagnose conditions related to hearing and to identifying a hearing loss that requires treatment.
Hearing Threshold: ↑ The faintest sound a person can hear. Above the threshold the person can hear sounds, and below it they cannot. Hearing thresholds are calculated for each ear separately.
Decibel (DB): ↑ The unit of sound intensity, named after Alexander Graham Bell, an American inventor who, among other things, invented the telephone in 1876.
Conflict of Interest
The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.
Original Source Article
↑Nagar, S., Mikulincer, M., Nitsan, G., and Ben-David, B. M. 2022. Safe and sound: the effects of experimentally priming the sense of attachment security on pure-tone audiometric thresholds among young and older adults. Psychol. Sci. 33:424–432. doi: 10.1177/09567976211042008
 ↑ Bowlby, J. 1982. Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment (2nd ed.). New York: Basic Books. (Original work published 1969).
 ↑ Mikulincer, M., and Shaver, P. R. 2016. Attachment in Adulthood: Structure, Dynamics, and Change (2nd edition). New York: Guilford Press.
 ↑ Mikulincer, M., and Shaver, P. R. 2020. Broaden-and-build effects of contextually boosting the sense of attachment security in adulthood. Curr. Direct. Psychol. Sci. 29:22–26. doi: 10.1177/0963721419885997
 ↑ Nagar, S., Mikulincer, M., Nitsan, G., and Ben-David, B. M. 2022. Safe and sound: the effects of experimentally priming the sense of attachment security on pure-tone audiometric thresholds among young and older adults. Psychol. Sci. 33:424–432.? doi: 10.1177/09567976211042008
 ↑ Ben-David, B. M., Malkin, G., and Erel, H. 2018. “Ageism and neuropsychological tests”, in Contemporary Perspectives on Ageism, eds. L. Ayalon and C. Tesch-Römer (Cham: Springer). p. 277–297. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-73820-8_17