Humans More Likely to Recognize Cries of Joy than Cries of Fear and Pain: Study

Human beings are better able to respond cries of pleasure or joy than cries of alarm, according to a new study.

Posted in PLOS biology yesterday, the study explains that human screams exist on a spectrum and can represent any of six emotions: pleasure, sadness, joy, pain, fear and anger. This means that humans are among the only species known to use their vocal ability to communicate feelings of joviality and alarm.

The results also contradict the concept of “threat bias,” which suggests that we have evolved to pay exaggerated and selective attention to particular threats – making it a key survival tactic. It turns out that we may be more sensitive to shouts of joy.

“The results of our study are surprising … Researchers generally assume that the cognitive system of primates and humans is specifically tuned to detect danger and threat signals in the environment as a survival mechanism”, Sascha Frühholz, professor associate professor of psychology at the University of Oslo in Norway, and the study’s lead author, told CNN.


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While conducting the study, the researchers made loud sounds similar to screaming in front of the participants, reflecting the feelings triggered by a range of scenarios: “being attacked by an armed stranger in a dark alley”, “trying[ing] to intimidate an opponent “,” to make your favorite team win the World Cup “or simply” sexual pleasure “. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, which measures brain activity, researchers found that the human brain responds more quickly to positive, non-alarming cries than those that sound the alarm. Not only that, they were able to more accurately identify the cries of pleasure and joy.

The researchers believe the findings indicate how unvocalized speech – the screams and other sounds we make – evolved. “Only humans seem to cry out in ‘non-alarming’ contexts, but this phenomenon [of non-vocalization speech] has so far been completely neglected in scientific research, ”Frühholz told Inverse. Scream communication, he adds, appears to have become widely diverse in humans, and that’s a huge evolutionary step in itself.

Although there may not yet be an explanation for these results, Frühholz has a hypothesis to make sense of this.

He postulated that while the human brain, like that of other species, functions as a “threat detector,” there is more to it because of the complexity of the social environments in which humans exist. Expressing, and in turn understanding, positive emotions can also be relevant to the “dynamics of [our] social interactions, ”causing us to scream for reasons other than alarming.

Although more research is needed to prove its theory, the present study may perhaps pave the way for future research.

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