Like the sound of your own voice? You may be more emotionally in tune than the rest of us. This is the upshot of a study that suggests people use their voice to help them understand their own emotions.
You’d be forgiven for assuming that feelings come first, followed by their outward expression, but in the past few years it has become clear that it’s more of a two-way street. Our bodies play an active role in shaping our thoughts and emotions. For example, you may think that you smile because you are happy, but the physical sensation of smiling can create happy feelings. Now it seems our voice has similar powers.
A team led by Jean-Julien Aucouturier at the CNRS, the French national centre for scientific research, created a computer programme that allowed them to electronically manipulate the emotional content of people’s voices. They asked 109 participants to read a short story about buying bread, and then used the programme to modify each voice to sound either happy, sad or fearful.
When they listened to the altered recording, most people did not realise their voices had been altered in any way. “Everyone else around could tell their voice had been changed to happy or sad, but they couldn’t. They believed that how they were hearing it was really how they’d said it,” says Aucouturier.
Not only were the volunteers unaware of how they sounded, when asked how they felt 85 per cent gave answers that aligned with how their voices had been modified. Skin conductance tests confirmed that they did indeed feel this way.
“It is really a striking result that participants ended up updating their emotional state in response to whether their own voices were made to sound happy, sad or anxious,” says Aucouturier.
It makes sense to process the emotional expression in others’ voices, he says. “If you’re angry, I need to know about it because I could be in danger, but there does not seem to be any point in becoming afraid of the sound of a voice when you know it is your own. You could call it a bug in the system, like an auto-immune reaction.”
A more likely explanation, says Aucouturier, is that the volunteers used their voice to provide information about themselves: I sound happy so I probably am. “This is a completely novel finding – think about what you may infer about yourself the next time you have a sore throat and start sounding like Darth Vader.”
“We infer our own emotions in much the same way as we infer them for other people,” says psychologist Simone Schnall from the University of Cambridge. “This study suggests that even subtle changes in vocal expression carry subjective meaning in the context of emotion regulation.”
It’s unclear how big a part voice plays in our emotional awareness since facial muscles, heart rate, breathing, all play a part in how we feel, says Aucouturier. “How all of these interact, and what prevails in case of conflicting evidence is still largely unknown. But voice is such a powerful and ubiquitous medium in daily expression of emotion that it’s bound to play an important role.”
Mark Huckvale at University College London treats people with schizophrenia via an avatar. He says that the technique could be applied in mental health therapy. “Feeding back the client’s voice sounding more cheerful could possibly boost the benefit of therapy.” It could help build the client’s self-confidence, he says.