Thursday, January 28, 2010

Prosody, empathy, and mirror neurons

Via Science Daily, the amount of activity in Broca's Area, the part of the brain that makes intonation in speech is related to the level of the speaker's 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.
Of course, we can't tell if there is a causal relationship in either direction, so it's one more example of the fact that the brain is god-awful complicated, and more things are related to each other than we have any idea. Nor do I have any special insights, just the usual questions.

I mostly wonder if these things change with time or culture.

  • Are people who speak languages with lots of intonation, such as Chinese, more empathetic than those who do not, such as speakers of English? (Use native English speakers of Chinese background and native English speakers who have learned Chinese as controls.) We're dangerously close to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which I find very appealing, but most linguists do not. Like many big ideas, the strong version is wrong, and the weak version is right.
  • Are mothers' brains different when they are speaking motherese than when they are discussing some job issue? 
  • Do the people I associate with sing-song speech (adolescent girls) lose empathy when they turn into flatter-speaking women.
  • Do the brain areas that light up vary with the subject matter for girls? Is it different when they are hanging out with friends rather than giving a speech in class?
  • Can a person increase or decrease empathy by actively changing their* speech patterns?
  • Is this related to the flattened affect of a person who is involved in some gruesome task, like pulling bodies out of a flattened building?
  • How closely is the level of activity in the brain area they studied related to the amount of intonation in actual speech? 
*If you hadn't noticed, I embrace the singular "they" rather than he/she. It is not a grammatical error; it is standard American speech and I wholly accept it.

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