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Humans Recognise Emotions From Vocalisation Faster Than From Spoken Words

Human sounds are shown to convey emotions better than words in a new study. We are able to recognise emotions faster from vocalisations than from verbal sounds. The findings are published in the journal Biological Psychology.


A team of researchers from McGill University puts into perspective our responses to sounds and words conveyed by our fellow humans.

Humans understand vocalisations faster

Participants were made to identify emotions from vocalisations (entailing ‘nonsense phrases’) and language expressing three emotions (anger, happiness, and sadness). Furthermore, the speed at which the brain would respond was measured using an EEG.

It was found that when it comes to human sounds expressing a certain emotion as opposed to words doing the same, we are more apt at recognising the feeling from the former. Our brains begin to recognise emotions conveyed by vocalisations in only one-tenth of a second.

Humans are more attentive to vocalisations

Not only are we quicker at spotting emotions from vocalisations, but we also tend to be more attentive when the emotion is expressed in this way than when it is communicated in words.

It appears, regardless of the magic imbibed in words, human sounds are more efficient at revealing emotions, both in terms of clarity and speed, because of our brains allegedly relying on primitive systems to process emotions on a preferential basis (in favour of the sounds). The researchers explain this in terms of the apparent superior importance of deciphering vocal sounds for the survival of humans. Identifying these are based on ‘older’ systems as per the evolution of humans, explains lead author Marc Pell. On the other hand, interpreting emotions from spoken language only came later when language developed.

Happiness recognised faster while anger left a more lasting response

The results also show that the volunteers could detect vocalisation of happiness faster than those of anger and sadness. However, both angry sounds and angry words generated brain activity that lasted longer than either happiness or sadness. It appears anger provokes responses that linger more. This implies that our brain gives special attention to signs of anger to evaluate the gravity of potentially dangerous situations.

Anxious participants react faster

Anxiety among the participants also had an effect on the results: those who were more anxious would react to emotional voices faster and to a greater extent than those who were less anxious.


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