Sounds From Speech Say A Lot More About Emotion Than Words, Alone

First Posted: Jan 19, 2016 02:51 PM EST

What we say "says" a lot, but the sounds we make while or before we say something might bring the strongest message, according to a new study.

Researchers at McGill University found that human sounds actually convey emotions faster and clearer than words do--harkening back to the days when decoding vocal sounds played a crucial role in human survival.

"The identification of emotional vocalizations depends on systems in the brain that are older in evolutionary terms," said 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, in a news release. "Understanding emotions expressed in spoken language, on the other hand, involves more recent brain systems that have evolved as human language developed."

During the study, researchers examined how the brain responded differently when emotions were expressed via vocalizations or through language. They specifically focused on three basic emotions: anger, sadness and happiness. They tested 24 participants by playing a random mix of vocalizations and nonsense speech, e.g. Then, they asked participants to identify what emotions were conveyed while they used an EEG to record how quickly and in what ways the brain responded as participants heard the different types of emotional vocal sounds.

Findings revealed that participants had an easier time detecting vocalizations of happiness than vocal sounds that conveyed anger or sadness. However, they also found that angry sounds and angry speech both produced ongoing brain activity that lasted longer than either of the other emotions; this suggests that the brain pays special attention to the importance of anger signals.
They also found that more anxious individuals have a heightened sense of response to emotional voices than less anxious individuals involved in the study.

"Vocalizations appear to have the advantage of conveying meaning in a more immediate way than speech," said 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."

The study is published in Biological Psychology.

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