Echoing the Past: NSSR PhD Student Elisa Monti Searches for Indices of Trauma in Voice

The cliché goes: our eyes are windows to our soul. At The New School for Social Research, new work by experimental psychology doctoral student Elisa Monti explores whether our voice might contain echoes of our past.

Having started out as a performer and student of musical theatre, Monti developed an interest in variations that she noticed in the singing voices of her peers. Detecting subtle (and not-so-subtle) changes in their voice when performing in varied social contexts, she grew curious about the potential psychological causes of what seemed to be involuntary changes. She began charting a distinctive research agenda that integrates, in a novel way, typically disparate strands of psychological research. Her work informs her undergraduate teaching at The New School’s Eugene Lang College, as well as a documentary project on the relationship between trauma and voice.

Monti was drawn to the New School’s Social Psychology lab, where she pursues research under the supervision of Professor Emanuele Castano. To approach questions about voice, Monti explains, she first studied attachment dynamics. Within the field of psychology, theories of attachment provide accounts for how the behavioral patterns that structure childhood relationships and connections continue to affect individuals as they mature into adulthood. Monti drew a parallel between variations in voice and the social dynamics of past experiences, particularly those related to childhood. Her ambition was to measure whether such experiences could shape the kinds of vocal variations that she had previously recognized.

The experiments produced surprising results. When it comes to vocal variations, Monti’s work suggests that the present circumstances in which a singer performs are shot through with memories from the singer’s past.

Monti’s research became oriented toward the question of whether past traumas make their presence felt, not just psychologically, but also physically. To pursue this question, Monti also became affiliated with a the Trauma and Affective Psychophysiology Lab in the NSSR Psychology Department, led by Assistant Professor Wendy D’Andrea. From this new perspective, guided by research on the ways that psychological trauma can indeed manifest physically, Monti began to explore the manifold ways our voices are altered, often in barely noticeable ways, by unconscious dynamics.

In addition to writing a traditional peer-reviewed academic paper, Monti also sought new mediums to pursue and publicize her research. It was this need that to led her to produce You’ll Say Nothing, a documentary film that explores the entanglements of trauma and voice in an audiovisual format.

The documentary features short vignettes in which patients and clinicians describe cases of people losing control over their voice in different ways after experiencing trauma. In the beginning of the film, Professor D’Andrea reminds viewers that, “the voice expresses things we don’t even mean to express.” Monti’s documentary proceeds to unpack into this assertion, demonstrating that the content of what is expressed can emerge from the long-term, unexpected effects of trauma.

As Brian Gill, an Associate Professor of Music at the University of Indiana explains in the film, “Mind and voice are very connected; it’s impossible to deny that reality.” As a teacher of voice, Gill suggests that he has to be aware that, “on some level, as I’m focused on the technical needs of a student […] I have to see where they’re locked up. Why they are unable to unlock their voice, so to speak. In that setting, it’s inevitable that you’re going to uncover some issues that they’ve had in their life. Some more minor than others, and others incredibly devastating.” Beyond the specific setting of music instruction, clinicians in the field argue that it may be possible to detect traces of previous traumas not only in singing voices, but also in regular speech.

Monti hopes You’ll Say Nothing will generate enough interest to motivate the creation of a second documentary on the same subject. “If somebody sees a project that can reach them like this and thinks ’you know what, I’m actually really interested in this subject,’ then it will be easier to pull them into the actual research.” In the end, Monti’s goal is to reach both a scientific audience and a more general viewership, bringing attention to the connections between trauma and voice. She aims to create enough interest to make it clear that further research into this issue will provide vital insight into our voices and ourselves.