Music in speech equals empathy in heart?

January 26, 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 PLoS ONE finds that people use the same brain regions 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 brain 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 empathy - or whether there is no cause and effect relationship either way.
-end-
The study is available at http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0008759

Aziz-Zadeh is assistant professor of occupational sciences with a joint appointment in the Brain and Creativity Institute of the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Sheng is a USC doctoral student in the Brain and Creativity Institute. Gheytanchi is a postdoctoral researcher at the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology.

University of Southern California

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
Brightsurf.com 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 Amazon.com.