How words get an emotional meaning

January 09, 2019

Many objects and people in everyday life have an emotional meaning. A pair of wool socks, for example, has an emotional value if it was the last thing the grandmother knitted before her death. The same applies to words. The name of a stranger has no emotional value at first, but if a loving relationship develops, the same name suddenly has a positive connotation. Researchers at the University of Göttingen have investigated how the brain processes such stimuli, which can be positive or negative. The results were published in the journal Neuropsychologia.

The scientists from the Georg Elias Müller Institute for Psychology at the University of Göttingen analysed how people associate neutral signs, words and faces with emotional meaning. Within just a few hours, participants learn these connections through a process of systematic rewards and losses. For example, if they always receive money when they see a certain neutral word, this word acquires a positive association. However, if they lose money whenever they see a certain word, this leads to a negative association. The studies show that people learn positive associations much faster than neutral or negative associations: something positive very quickly becomes associated with a word or indeed with the face of a person (as their recent research in Neuroimage has shown).

Using electroencephalography (EEG), the researchers also investigated how the brain processes the various stimuli. The brain usually determines whether an image or word is positive or negative after about 200 to 300 milliseconds. "Words associated with loss cause specific neuronal reactions in the visual cortex after just 100 milliseconds," says Dr Louisa Kulke, first author of the study. "So the brain distinguishes in a flash what a newly learned meaning the word has for us, especially if that meaning is negative."

It also seems to make a difference whether the word is already known to the subject (like "chair" or "tree") or whether it is a fictitious word that does not exist in the language (like "napo" or "foti"). Thus, the existing semantic meaning of a word seems to play a role in the emotions that we associate with that word.
Original Publications: Kulke et al. Differential effects of learned associations with words and pseudowords on event-related brain potentials. Neuropsychologia (2018). Doi:

Hammerschmidt, al.. Implicit reward associations impact face processing: Time-resolved evidence from event-related brain potentials and pupil dilations. NeuroImage (2018). Doi:

Dr Louisa Kulke
University of Göttingen
Georg Elias Müller Institute for Psychology
Affective Neuroscience and Psychophysiology
Goßlerstraße 14, 37073 Göttingen
Telephone: +49 (0) 551 3920624

University of Göttingen

Related Brain Articles from Brightsurf:

Glioblastoma nanomedicine crosses into brain in mice, eradicates recurring brain cancer
A new synthetic protein nanoparticle capable of slipping past the nearly impermeable blood-brain barrier in mice could deliver cancer-killing drugs directly to malignant brain tumors, new research from the University of Michigan shows.

Children with asymptomatic brain bleeds as newborns show normal brain development at age 2
A study by UNC researchers finds that neurodevelopmental scores and gray matter volumes at age two years did not differ between children who had MRI-confirmed asymptomatic subdural hemorrhages when they were neonates, compared to children with no history of subdural hemorrhage.

New model of human brain 'conversations' could inform research on brain disease, cognition
A team of Indiana University neuroscientists has built a new model of human brain networks that sheds light on how the brain functions.

Human brain size gene triggers bigger brain in monkeys
Dresden and Japanese researchers show that a human-specific gene causes a larger neocortex in the common marmoset, a non-human primate.

Unique insight into development of the human brain: Model of the early embryonic brain
Stem cell researchers from the University of Copenhagen have designed a model of an early embryonic brain.

An optical brain-to-brain interface supports information exchange for locomotion control
Chinese researchers established an optical BtBI that supports rapid information transmission for precise locomotion control, thus providing a proof-of-principle demonstration of fast BtBI for real-time behavioral control.

Transplanting human nerve cells into a mouse brain reveals how they wire into brain circuits
A team of researchers led by Pierre Vanderhaeghen and Vincent Bonin (VIB-KU Leuven, Université libre de Bruxelles and NERF) showed how human nerve cells can develop at their own pace, and form highly precise connections with the surrounding mouse brain cells.

Brain scans reveal how the human brain compensates when one hemisphere is removed
Researchers studying six adults who had one of their brain hemispheres removed during childhood to reduce epileptic seizures found that the remaining half of the brain formed unusually strong connections between different functional brain networks, which potentially help the body to function as if the brain were intact.

Alcohol byproduct contributes to brain chemistry changes in specific brain regions
Study of mouse models provides clear implications for new targets to treat alcohol use disorder and fetal alcohol syndrome.

Scientists predict the areas of the brain to stimulate transitions between different brain states
Using a computer model of the brain, Gustavo Deco, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, and Josephine Cruzat, a member of his team, together with a group of international collaborators, have developed an innovative method published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Sept.

Read More: Brain News and Brain Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to