We communicate emotions faster with sounds than with words

If we include the vocalisations and sounds that we regularly use to express emotions (frustration, anger, amusement, satisfaction ….), our vocabularies are far larger than just the words we know. Very often, and this happens every day, such sounds alone are sufficient for a complete communication.

“Aaaaaaaargh” as your son storms out of the room — for example.

the scream

the scream  edvard munch

A new paper describes a study where brain EEG’s were used to measure how and how quickly the brain responds to such sounds.

M.D. Pell, et al, Preferential decoding of emotion from human non-linguistic vocalizations versus speech prosody. Biological Psychology, 2015; 111: 14 DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2015.08.008

From the McGill University press release

It takes just one-tenth of a second for our brains to begin to recognize emotions conveyed by vocalizations, according to researchers from McGill. It doesn’t matter whether the non-verbal sounds are growls of anger, the laughter of happiness or cries of sadness. More importantly, the researchers have also discovered that we pay more attention when an emotion (such as happiness, sadness or anger) is expressed through vocalizations than we do when the same emotion is expressed in speech.

The researchers believe that the speed with which the brain ‘tags’ these vocalizations and the preference given to them compared to language, is due to the potentially crucial role that decoding vocal sounds has played in human survival. 

“The identification of emotional vocalizations depends on systems in the brain that are older in evolutionary terms,” says Marc Pell, Director of McGill’s School of Communication Sciences and Disorders and the lead author on the study that was recently published in Biological Psychology. “Understanding emotions expressed in spoken language, on the other hand, involves more recent brain systems that have evolved as human language developed.” ………

The researchers found that the participants were able to detect vocalizations of happiness (i.e., laughter) more quickly than vocal sounds conveying either anger or sadness. But, interestingly, they found that angry sounds and angry speech both produced ongoing brain activity that lasted longer than either of the other emotions, suggesting that the brain pays special attention to the importance of anger signals.

“Our data suggest that listeners engage in sustained monitoring of angry voices, irrespective of the form they take, to grasp the significance of potentially threatening events,” says Pell.

The researchers also discovered that individuals who are more anxious have a faster and more heightened response to emotional voices in general than people who are less anxious.

“Vocalizations appear to have the advantage of conveying meaning in a more immediate way than speech,” says Pell. “Our findings are consistent with studies of non-human primates which suggest that vocalizations that are specific to a species are treated preferentially by the neural system over other sounds.”

….. 

Abstract

This study used event-related brain potentials (ERPs) to compare the time course of emotion processing from non-linguistic vocalizations versus speech prosody, to test whether vocalizations are treated preferentially by the neurocognitive system. Participants passively listened to vocalizations or pseudo-utterances conveying anger, sadness, or happiness as the EEG was recorded. Simultaneous effects of vocal expression type and emotion were analyzed for three ERP components (N100, P200, late positive component). Emotional vocalizations and speech were differentiated very early (N100) and vocalizations elicited stronger, earlier, and more differentiated P200 responses than speech. At later stages (450–700 ms), anger vocalizations evoked a stronger late positivity (LPC) than other vocal expressions, which was similar but delayed for angry speech. Individuals with high trait anxiety exhibited early, heightened sensitivity to vocal emotions (particularly vocalizations). These data provide new neurophysiological evidence that vocalizations, as evolutionarily primitive signals, are accorded precedence over speech-embedded emotions in the human voice.

I have no doubt that human need for communication first gave rise to our vocalisations from the very beginnings of the species homo, but the invention of words – also driven by communication needs – came very much later. So it is not surprising that communication using vocalisations of sounds, which are not words, lies much deeper in our make-up.

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