Music in speech equals empathy in heart?

January 27, 2010

Some people are annoyed by upspeak: the habit of making a sentence sound like a question?

But actually, being able to change intonation in speech - as in upspeak - may be a sign of superior empathy?

A new study in the journal finds that people use the same to produce and understand intonation in speech.

Many studies suggest that people learn by imitating through so-called mirror neurons. This study shows for the first time that prosody - the music of speech - also works on a mirror-like system.

And it turns out that the higher a person scores on standard tests of empathy, the more activity they have in their prosody-producing areas of the brain.

So increased empathic ability is linked to the ability to perceive prosody as well as activity in these motor regions, said authors Lisa Aziz-Zadeh and Tong Sheng of USC, and Anahita Gheytanchi of the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology.

"Prosody is one of the main ways that we communicate with each other," Aziz-Zadeh said.

In some cases, humans can't do without it, as in the case of a stroke victim who garbles words but can express emotion.

Or when talking to a pet: "If you have a pet, they basically are understanding your prosody," Aziz-Zadeh said.

She and her colleagues imaged the brains of 20 volunteers as they heard and produced prosody through happy, sad and other intonations of the nonsensical phrase "da da da da da."

The same part of the lit up when the volunteers heard the phrase as when they repeated it. It is called Broca's Area and sits about two inches above and forward of each ear.

The volunteers with the most activity in Broca's Area tended to score high on empathy measures. They also used prosody more frequently in daily speech.

It is not clear whether empathy brings about prosodic activity or whether frequent use of prosody can somehow help to develop - or whether there is no cause and effect relationship either way.

More information: The study is available at dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0008759

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YawningDog
not rated yet Jan 27, 2010
I dislike Upspeak. If you don't know what Upspeak is, go to Diffusionradio and listen to their Dec. 7, 2009 podcast, about 4 minutes in. (HTML tags not permitted)

The origin of Upspeak is the Valley-Girl-Speak fad of the late 60s/70s. It then infiltrated our media, then the educational system as females began bringing it with them into the classroom. As women entered institutions of higher learning in teaching positions in ever greater numbers, Upspeak increased and gained enough of a following that eventually some men jumped on the bandwagon. Girly men? I don't know but it would make a good topic for a dissertation.

Now the trend on science podcasts is to Upspeak while describing all things science as "really cool". The use of the word "cool" has become so pervasive that it's no longer cool to use the word cool. But an Upspeaker will never know that.

But what's the use complaining? Like the poor, the ignorant will always be with us.

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