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Speaking With Emotion Leaves Distinct Signature In The Brain Of The Listener

If somebody was reading this sentence aloud, your brain would be able to interpret whether I was speaking in anger, joy, relief, or sadness. That's because emotions in speech leave distinct "signatures" in the brain of the listener.

Now, for the first time, brain scans have now characterised those patterns. The finding could help determine where in the brain deficits in emotion processing occur in people with psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia.

Thomas Ethofer at the University Medical Center of Geneva, Switzerland, and colleagues identified spatial signatures of emotion in the primary auditory cortex (PAC) – an area of the temporal lobes at the side of the brain, which is responsible for the sensation of sound.

This area is known to react more strongly to emotional vocalisations than to neutral speech, but because this increase in activity is similar for all emotions, scientists had been previously unable to separate one mood from another by using scans.
Emotional gobbledygook

To solve this problem, Ethofer scanned the brains of 22 subjects using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they listened to emotional speech, and combined this with a technique called multivariate pattern analysis (MVPA) – used to identify patterns in brain activation.

Each subject listened to the pseudo-sentence "ne kalibam sout molem", spoken by 10 actors and pronounced in five different ways – with anger, sadness, neutrality, relief and joy.

While previous methods analysed increased brain activity at individual locations, Ethofer looked at overall patterns of activity. "Consider the following analogy," he says. "If you have a puzzle consisting of black and white pieces, it is hard to say whether they belong to a picture of a zebra or a checkerboard if you look at each piece in isolation, but it becomes relatively easy if you put the pieces together."
Vital skill

Using MVPA, the team was able to match distinct patterns of brain activity as different emotions were heard, and identify which emotion was being heard from the other alternatives.

"Particularly novel is the discovery of a specialised role of auditory cortex in the processing of distinct emotions – a nice indication that the auditory cortex is not just sensory," says Nina Kraus, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

Understanding the emotion of others is vital to our social skills. These findings might help researchers unravel where our emotional response goes wrong in various psychiatric disorders such as depression and schizophrenia, as well as autism, say the authors.

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