USC (US)—People who can change intonation when they speak—like those who use upspeak to make a statement sound like a question—may have superior empathy, according to a new study.
Researchers have found that people use the same brain regions to produce and understand intonation in speech. Details of the study appear in PLos One.
Previous studies suggest that people learn by imitating through “mirror neurons”. The new study shows that prosody—the music of speech—works on a similar mirror-like system.
“Prosody is one of the main ways we communicate with each other” says study author Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, assistant professor of occupational sciences at the University of Southern California.
Aziz-Zadeh says 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. In some cases, humans can’t do without prosody, 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 says.
She and 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 even if there is a cause and effect relationship either way.
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