The human cry signals more than fear of imminent danger or entanglement in social conflict. Yelling can also express joy or excitement. For the first time, researchers have shown that non-alarming screams are even perceived and processed by the brain more effectively than their alarming counterparts.
Screaming can save lives. Non-human primates and other mammalian species frequently use screech-like calls when involved in social conflict or to signal the presence of predators and other threats. While humans also scream to signal danger or communicate aggression, they scream when they experience strong emotions such as hopelessness or joy. However, previous studies on this topic have largely focused on alarming fear cries.
Humans respond faster to positive calls and with higher sensitivity
In a new study, a team from the Psychology Department at the University of Zurich led by Sascha Frühholz investigated the meaning of the full spectrum of human screams. The results revealed six emotionally distinct types of screaming indicating pain, anger, fear, pleasure, sadness, and joy. “We were surprised that listeners responded faster and more accurately, and with higher neural sensitivity, to non-alarming, positive cries than to alarming cries,” says Frühholz.
Cognitive processing of happy cries is more effective
The research team performed four experiments for their study. 12 participants were asked to vocalize positive and negative cries that could be elicited by various situations. A different group of individuals assessed the emotional nature of the screams and classified them into different categories. As participants listened to the screams, their brain activity underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor how they perceived, recognized, processed, and classified sounds. “The frontal, auditory and limbic brain regions showed much more neural activity and connectivity when listening to non-alarming screams than when processing alarm calls,” says Frühholz.
More complex social environments have reshuffled neurocognitive priorities
It was previously assumed that human and primate cognitive systems were specially designed to recognize threat and danger signals in the form of screams. Unlike primates and other animal species, however, human cries seem to have diversified over the course of human evolution – what Frühholz sees as a great evolutionary leap. “It’s quite possible that only humans cry out to signal positive emotions like great joy or pleasure. And unlike alarm calls, positive cries have become more and more important over time, ”he says. The researchers suggest that this may be due to the communication demands induced by the increasingly complex social environments of humans.
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Material provided by University of Zurich. Note: Content can be changed for style and length.