Study Shows How Vocal Emotions Influence Word Recognition Memory

Emotion helps us recognize words more accurately and quicker, however, we do not remember emotionally intoned speech as accurately as neutral speech, according to a new study by scientists at the National University of Singapore.

Emotion helps us recognize words more accurately and quicker, however, we do not remember emotionally intoned speech as accurately as neutral speech (© Fuller Theological Seminary)

In anger, sadness, exhilaration or fear, speech takes on an urgency that is lacking from its normal even-tempered form. It becomes louder or softer, more hurried or delayed, more melodic, erratic or monotonous. And this emotional speech immediately captures a listener’s attention.

The study, published online in the journal Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience, looks at whether emotions have a lasting effect on verbal memory.

The scientists led by Dr Annett Schirmer asked 48 men and 48 women to listen to sadly and neutrally spoken words. They were later shown these words in a visual test, examining word recognition and attitudes to these words. The researchers also measured brain activity to look for evidence of vocal emotional coding.

The results show that participants recognized words better when they had previously heard them in the neutral tone compared with the sad tone. And words were remembered more negatively if they had previously been heard in a sad voice.

The researchers also looked at gender differences in word processing. They found that women were more sensitive to the emotional elements than men, and were more likely than men to recall the emotion of the speaker’s voice. Current levels of the female sex hormone estrogen predicted these differences.

“Emotional voices produce changes in long-term memory, as well as capturing the listener’s attention. They influence how easily spoken words are later recognized and what emotions are assigned to them. Thus voices, like other emotional signals, affect listeners beyond the immediate present,” Dr Schirmer said.

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Bibliographic information: Schirmer A et al. 2012. Vocal emotions influence verbal memory: neural correlates and inter-individual differences. Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience; doi: 10.3758/s13415-012-0132-8