A laugh or a growl says more to a human than a joke or an angry word, and we pay more attention when we hear an emotional sound than we do if someone puts the feeling into words. We also interpret emotions much faster than words, within a tenth of a second. These are the findings of research published in Biological Psychology.

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Humans hear sounds of emotion more quickly than words.

Previous studies carried out at Cornell University have suggested that while human feelings themselves are individual and subjective, shared patterns of activity in the brain enables them to be converted into a standard code.

Researchers from McGill University in Canada wanted to know whether the brain would register a different reaction in response to sounds, as opposed to words. Sounds that convey emotions include laughing, growling or crying.

The team selected three basic emotions: anger, sadness and happiness. They played a combination of sounds reflecting those emotions to 24 participants, while simultaneously playing nonsense phrases.

Sentences, such as, “The dirms are in the cindabal,” were chosen so as not to give any linguistic hint as to which feelings were being expressed. At the same time, an electroencephalogram (EEG) was used to record how quickly the participants’ brains responded to the cues.

As the participants listened to the phrases, spoken with different emotions, they tried to identify which emotions were being expressed.

The EEG was able to measure to a millisecond the brain’s response to emotions, as compared with words. The researchers could also observe which emotions, if any, were most quickly recognized through sounds, the extent of the brain’s response and whether emotional sounds have a stronger effect on individuals who are anxious.

Sounds of happiness appear to be picked up more quickly than those of anger or sadness. The resulting brain activity also lasted longer after exposure to angry or sad sounds, implying that the brain pays more attention to angry signals, regardless of the speech content. The added focus may stem from the need to assess the level of danger.

People who were feeling anxious displayed a more rapid, more intense reaction to emotional sounds in general.

The researchers believe that the reason could be evolutionary. Understanding sounds may be a crucial way in which humans have avoided danger in order to survive.

Lead author Marc Pell, director of McGill’s School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, says:

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

Medical News Today has previously reported on findings that sadness lasts longer than other emotions, such as shame, surprise and irritation, possibly because sadness lends itself to greater rumination.