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Archive for September 2009

Emotions: We See What We Expect

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Folk wisdom usually has it that “seeing is believing,” but new research suggests another meaning to this adage – at least when it comes to perceiving other people’s emotions.

An international team of psychologists from the United States, New Zealand and France has found that the way we initially think about the emotions of others biases our subsequent perception (and memory) of their facial expressions. So once we interpret an ambiguous or neutral look as angry or happy, we later remember and actually see it as such.

The study, published in the September issue of the journal Psychological Science, “addresses the age-old question: ‘Do we see reality as it is, or is what we see influenced by our preconceptions?'” said coauthor Piotr Winkielman, professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego. “Our findings indicate that what we think has a noticeable effect on our perceptions.”

“We imagine our emotional expressions as unambiguous ways of communicating how we’re feeling,” said coauthor Jamin Halberstadt, of the University of Otago in New Zealand, “but in real social interactions, facial expressions are blends of multiple emotions – they are open to interpretation. This means that two people can have different recollections about the same emotional episode, yet both be correct about what they ‘saw.’ So when my wife remembers my smirk as cynicism, she is right: her explanation of the expression at the time biased her perception of it. But it is also true that, had she explained my expression as empathy, I wouldn’t be sleeping on the couch.”

“It’s a paradox,” Halberstadt added. “The more we seek meaning in other emotions, the less accurate we are in remembering them.”

The researchers point out that implications of the results go beyond everyday interpersonal misunderstandings – especially for those who have persistent or dysfunctional ways of understanding emotions, such as socially anxious or traumatized individuals. For example, the socially anxious have negative interpretations of others’ reactions that may permanently color their perceptions of feelings and intentions, perpetuating their erroneous beliefs even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Other applications of the findings include eyewitness memory: A witness to a violent crime, for example, may attribute malice to a perpetrator – an impression which, according to the researchers, will influence memory for the perpetrator’s face and emotional expression.

The researchers showed experimental participants still photographs of faces computer-morphed to express ambiguous emotion and instructed them to think of these faces as either angry or happy. Participants then watched movies of the faces slowly changing expression, from angry to happy, and were asked to find the photograph they had originally seen. People’s initial interpretations influenced their memories: Faces initially interpreted as angry were remembered as expressing more anger than faces initially interpreted as happy.

Even more interesting, the ambiguous faces were also perceived and reacted to differently. By measuring subtle electrical signals coming from the muscles that control facial expressions, the researchers discovered that the participants imitated – on their own faces – the previously interpreted emotion when viewing the ambiguous faces again. In other words, when viewing a facial expression they had once thought about as angry, people expressed more anger themselves than did people viewing the same face if they had initially interpreted it as happy.

Because it is largely automatic, the researchers write, such facial mimicry reflects how the ambiguous face is perceived, revealing that participants were literally seeing different expressions.

“The novel finding here,” said Winkielman, of UC San Diego, “is that our body is the interface: The place where thoughts and perceptions meet. It supports a growing area of research on ’embodied cognition’ and ’embodied emotion.’ Our corporeal self is intimately intertwined with how – and what – we think and feel.”

Psychological Science Early View (Articles online in advance of print)
Published Online: 31 Aug 2009
Emotional Conception: How Embodied Emotion Concepts Guide Perception and Facial Action
Jamin Halberstadt 1 , Piotr Winkielman 2 , Paula M. Niedenthal 3,4 and Nathalie Dalle 3,4

1 University of Otago;
2 University of California at San Diego;
3 CNRS, Clermont-Ferrand, France; and
4 University of Clermont-Ferrand

Address correspondence to
Jamin B. Halberstadt, Department of Psychology, University of Otago, P.O. Box 56, Dunedin, New Zealand, e-mail:; to Piotr Winkielman, Department of Psychology, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093-0109, e-mail:; or to Paula Niedenthal, Department of Psychology, 34 Avenue Carnot, 63037 Clermont-Ferrand, France, e-mail:
Copyright © 2009 Association for Psychological Science

ABSTRACT—This study assessed embodied simulation via electromyography (EMG) as participants first encoded emotionally ambiguous faces with emotion concepts (i.e., “angry,””happy”) and later passively viewed the faces without the concepts. Memory for the faces was also measured. At initial encoding, participants displayed more smiling-related EMG activity in response to faces paired with “happy” than in response to faces paired with “angry.” Later, in the absence of concepts, participants remembered happiness-encoded faces as happier than anger-encoded faces. Further, during passive reexposure to the ambiguous faces, participants’ EMG indicated spontaneous emotion-specific mimicry, which in turn predicted memory bias. No specific EMG activity was observed when participants encoded or viewed faces with non-emotion-related valenced concepts, or when participants encoded or viewed Chinese ideographs. From an embodiment perspective, emotion simulation is a measure of what is currently perceived. Thus, these findings provide evidence of genuine concept-driven changes in emotion perception. More generally, the findings highlight embodiment’s role in the representation and processing of emotional information.

Written by huehueteotl

September 4, 2009 at 7:53 am

Posted in Psychology

Where Music Comes From: Musicality Matters For Emotion

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Music is one of the surest ways to influence human emotions; most people unconsciously recognize and respond to music that is happy, sad, fearful or mellow. But psychologists who have tried to trace the evolutionary roots of these responses usually hit a dead end. Nonhuman primates scarcely respond to human music, and instead prefer silence.

A new report by Charles Snowdon, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and musician David Teie of the University of Maryland shows that a monkey called the cotton-top tamarin indeed responds to music. The catch? These South American monkeys are essentially immune to human music, but they respond appropriately to “monkey music,” 30-second clips composed by Teie on the basis of actual monkey calls.

The music was inspired by sounds the tamarins make to convey two opposite emotions: threats and/or fear, and affiliation, a friendly, safe and happy condition.

The study reported that the monkeys could tell the difference: For five minutes after hearing fear music, the monkeys displayed more symptoms of anxiety and increased their movement. In contrast, monkeys that heard “affiliative” music reduced their movements and increased their feeding behavior — both signs of a calming effect.

Snowdon, a longtime researcher into primate behavior, says the project began with an inquiry from Teie, who plays cello in the National Symphony Orchestra: Had Snowdon ever tested the effects of music on monkeys? When Teie listened to recordings made in Snowdon’s monkey colony at the psychology department at UW-Madison, he readily discerned the animal’s affective state, Snowdon says. “He said, ‘This is a call from an animal that is very upset; this is from an animal that is more relaxed.’ He was able to read the emotional state just by the musical analysis.”

Teie composed the music using specific features he noticed in the monkeys’ calls, such as rising or falling pitches, and the duration of various sounds, says Snowdon, who notes that monkeys are not the only ones who use musical elements to convey emotional content in speech. Studies show that babies that are too young to understand words can still interpret a long tone and a descending pitch as soothing, and a short tone as inhibiting.

“We use legato (long tones) with babies to calm them,” Snowdon says. “We use staccato to order them to stop. Approval has a rising tone, and soothing has a decreasing tone. We add musical features to speech so it will influence the affective state of a baby. If you bark out, ‘PLAY WITH IT,’ a baby will freeze. The voice, the intonation pattern, the musicality can matter more than the words.”

Snowdon, who has sung in choirs for most of his life, adds, “My talking does not necessarily tell you about my emotional state. When I add extra elements, change the tone of voice, the rhythm, pitch or speed, that is where the emotional content is contained.”

Monkeys interpret rising and falling tones differently than humans. Oddly, their only response to several samples of human music was a calming response to the heavy-metal band Metallica.

The study opens a new window into animal communication, Snowdon says. “People have looked at animal communication in terms of conveying information – ‘I am hungry,’ or ‘I am afraid.’ But it’s much more than that. These musical elements are inducing a relatively long-term change in behavior of listeners. The affiliative music is making them calmer; they move less, eat and drink at a higher rate, and show less anxiety behavior.”

This change in behavior suggests that for cotton-top tamarins, communication is about much more than just information. “I am not calling just to let you know how I am feeling, but my call can also stimulate a similar state in you,” Snowdon says. “That would be valuable if a group was threatened; in that situation, you don’t want everybody being calm, you want them alert. We do the same thing when we try to calm a baby. I am not just communicating about how I am feeling. I am using the way I communicate to induce a similar state in the baby.”

The similarities in communications between monkeys and people suggest deep evolutionary roots for the musical elements of speech, Snowdon says. “The emotional components of music and animal calls might be very similar, and from an evolutionary perspective, we are finding that the note patterns, dissonance and timing are important for communicating affective states in both animals and people.”

Biol. Lett. published online before print September 2, 2009, doi:10.1098/rsbl.2009.0593
Affective responses in tamarins elicited by species-specific music.
Charles T. Snowdon and David Teie
Author for correspondence (

AbstractTheories of music evolution agree that human music has an affective influence on listeners. Tests of non-humans provided little evidence of preferences for human music. However, prosodic features of speech (‘motherese’) influence affective behaviour of non-verbal infants as well as domestic animals, suggesting that features of music can influence the behaviour of non-human species. We incorporated acoustical characteristics of tamarin affiliation vocalizations and tamarin threat vocalizations into corresponding pieces of music. We compared music composed for tamarins with that composed for humans. Tamarins were generally indifferent to playbacks of human music, but responded with increased arousal to tamarin threat vocalization based music, and with decreased activity and increased calm behaviour to tamarin affective vocalization based music. Affective components in human music may have evolutionary origins in the structure of calls of non-human animals. In addition, animal signals may have evolved to manage the behaviour of listeners by influencing their affective state.

* music evolution
* vocal communication
* affective responses
* tamarins
* species-specific music

Written by huehueteotl

September 3, 2009 at 7:39 am

Posted in Music, Psychology

Alcohol Ruins Biorhythm Master Clock

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Chronic alcohol consumption blunts the biological clock’s ability to synchronize daily activities to light, disrupts natural activity patterns and continues to affect the body’s clock (circadian rhythm), even days after the drinking ends, according to a new study with hamsters.

Suprachiasmatic Nucleus

The study describes the changes that drinking can produce on the body’s master clock and how it affects behavior. The research provides a way to study human alcoholism using an animal model, said researcher Christina L. Ruby.

Alcohol consumption affects the master clock, located in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) section of the brain. This clock controls the circadian cycle, a roughly 24-hour cycle, which regulates sleeping and waking, as well as the timing of a variety of other physiological functions, such as hormonal secretions, appetite, digestion, activity levels and body temperature. The SCN synchronizes physiological functions so that they occur at the proper times and keeps these functions synchronized with daylight. Disruption of the clock dramatically increases the risks of developing cancer, heart disease, and depression, among other health problems.

The researchers used hamsters to find out how alcohol affects circadian rhythms. Although hamsters are nocturnal, light synchronizes their clocks, just as with humans. The animals were divided into three groups, differing only on what they drank. The control group received water only. A second group received water containing 10% alcohol and the third group received water containing 20% alcohol. Hamsters, when given a choice, prefer alcohol, which they metabolize quickly.

The animals drank as much as they wanted and lived in an environment that provided 14 hours of light and 10 hours of darkness each day.

The researchers recorded the activity levels of the three groups throughout the day. Late in the dark cycle, about three hours before the nocturnal animals would normally be settling in to sleep, the researchers put on a low-level light for 30 minutes. The light was similar to the dim light of dawn. At another time, the groups received a brighter light, akin to the light in an office building. Hamsters exposed to the light late in their active cycle will normally settle down to sleep at the same time, but will wake up earlier. In effect, the light pushes their circadian clock forward.

In addition, the researchers tracked how long it takes alcohol to travel to the master clock in the brain. They also took regular readings of subcutaneous alcohol levels, which are akin to blood alcohol levels. In the final phase of the experiment, the hamsters that received alcohol were switched to regular water to examine the effects of withdrawal.

The study found that:

* The hamsters that drank alcohol had the hardest time shifting their rhythms after exposure to the dim light, and the more alcohol they drank, the harder it was to adjust. Exposure to dim light caused the water-only hamsters to wake up 72 minutes earlier than they normally would. The 10% alcohol group woke up 30 minutes earlier and the 20% alcohol group woke up only 18 minutes earlier.
* Exposure to bright light helped the alcohol-consuming hamsters to wake up sooner, greatly reducing the difference in wake up times among the groups. The control animals woke up 102 minutes earlier compared to the 20% alcohol group that woke up 84 minutes earlier.
* Total time spent active during the 24-hour period was the same for all three groups. However, the hamsters that consumed alcohol had fewer bouts of activity that lasted longer than the water-consuming controls. The control group had more bouts of activity over the course of the day.
* When the hamsters were withdrawn from alcohol for 2-3 days and then exposed to the same light treatment again, they woke up much earlier than the animals that had drunk only water. The hamsters that were withdrawn from alcohol woke up 126 minutes sooner compared to the water drinking controls, who advanced 66 minutes. This exaggerated response persisted even up to three days later, when the experiment ended.
* The hamsters drank the most heavily shortly after the beginning of the dark cycle, when they would naturally be most active. A peak in alcohol reached the suprachiasmatic nucleus in the brain 20 minutes later.

Human applications?

The researchers aim to apply the research to people, who also show circadian disruptions from drinking. Specifically, the study suggests the following:

* People who drink alcohol, particularly late into the night, may not respond to important light cues to keep their biological clocks in synch with daylight over the next 24 hours. Even low levels of alcohol may impair the response to light cues, said Ruby.
* After the first 24 hours, the circadian cycle continues to be affected, even without further consumption of alcohol.
* Exposure to bright light in the morning may reduce the disruption of alcohol to the biological clock.
* Chronic drinking continues to affect the biological clock even after withdrawal from alcohol. The hamsters withdrawn from alcohol woke up much earlier in response to light than they normally would, just like people who are trying to stop drinking. Getting a person’s circadian rhythm back in line after quitting may be why staying abstinent is so difficult.
* Chronic drinking may affect activity patterns, making drinkers less active at times of the day when they should be active and more active when they should not be, such as late at night.

Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol 297: R729-R737, 2009. DOI: 10.1152/ajpregu.00268.2009
Chronic ethanol attenuates circadian photic phase resetting and alters nocturnal activity patterns in the hamster.
Christina L. Ruby,1 Allison J. Brager,1 Marc A. DePaul,1 Rebecca A. Prosser,2 and J. David Glass1

1Department of Biological Sciences, Kent State University, Kent, Ohio; and 2Department of Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee

Submitted 13 May 2009 ; accepted in final form 22 June 2009

Acute ethanol (EtOH) administration impairs circadian clock phase resetting, suggesting a mode for the disruptive effect of alcohol abuse on human circadian rhythms. Here, we extend this research by characterizing the chronobiological effects of chronic alcohol consumption. First, daily profiles of EtOH were measured in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) and subcutaneously using microdialysis in hamsters drinking EtOH. In both cases, EtOH peaked near lights-off and declined throughout the dark-phase to low day-time levels. Drinking bouts preceded EtOH peaks by ~20 min. Second, hamsters chronically drinking EtOH received a light pulse during the late dark phase [Zeitgeber time (ZT) 18.5] to induce photic phase advances. Water controls had shifts of 1.2 ± 0.2 h, whereas those drinking 10% and 20% EtOH had much reduced shifts (0.5 ± 0.1 and 0.3 ± 0.1 h, respectively; P < 0.001 vs. controls). Third, incremental decreases in light intensity (270 lux to 0.5 lux) were used to explore chronic EtOH effects on photic entrainment and rhythm stability. Activity onset was unaffected by 20% EtOH at all light intensities. Conversely, the 24-h pattern of activity bouts was disrupted by EtOH under all light intensities. Finally, replacement of chronic EtOH with water was used to examine withdrawal effects. Water controls had photic phase advances of 1.1 ± 0.3 h, while hamsters deprived of EtOH for 2–3 days showed enhanced shifts (2.1 ± 0.3 h; P < 0.05 vs. controls). Thus, in chronically drinking hamsters, brain EtOH levels are sufficient to inhibit photic phase resetting and disrupt circadian activity. Chronic EtOH did not impair photic entrainment; however, its replacement with water potentiated photic phase resetting.

suprachiasmatic nucleus; glutamate; microdialysis; drinking rhythms

Written by huehueteotl

September 2, 2009 at 7:40 am

Posted in Neuroscience

Why Do We Weigh Our Options And Arguments?

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Weighty. Heavy. What do these words have to do with seriousness and importance? Why do we weigh our options, and why does your opinion carry more weight than mine?

Tsar Cannon

New research suggests that we can blame this on gravity. Heavy objects require more energy to move, and they can hurt us more if we move them clumsily. So we learn early on in life to think more and plan more when we’re dealing with heftier things. They require more cognitive effort as well as muscular effort.

This leads to the intriguing possibility that the abstract concept of importance is grounded in our very real experience of weight. Could the various metaphors involving weight derive from our body’s actual struggle with the force of gravity?

In a study University of Amsterdam psychologist Nils Jostmann and his colleagues speculated that actually carrying a heavy weight, rather than a light weight, would make people judge issues as more important in various ways.

In a series of experiments, volunteers held clipboards, some heavy and some light. While doing so, they were asked to fill out a number of questionnaires. In one study, they were asked to estimate the value of various foreign currencies and indeed, the researchers found that those with the heavy clipboard saw the money as more valuable and important.

The researchers also tested the effects of weight on the more abstract idea of justice. Volunteers (still holding their clipboards) were presented with a fictional scenario in which students were deliberately excluded from an important university decision, and were asked how important it was for them to have a voice at the table. Those with the heavier clipboards saw the exclusion of the students as a more important justice issue than did those with a lighter load.

They ran the same experiment a couple different ways, always with the identical result. That is, the actual heft of the clipboard made volunteers think more elaborately and more abstractly about a number of issues. This research adds to the emerging literature on “embodied cognition”- which suggests that the body is crucial for how the mind works.

“Gravitational pull not only shapes people’s bodies and behavior, but influences their very thoughts,” the authors conclude. Jostmann also notes that this can work in the opposite, “misleading people to take lightweight, but in fact important, matters too lightly.”

Psychological Science Volume 20, Issue 9, Date: September 2009, Pages: 1169-1174
Weight as an Embodiment of Importance
Nils B. Jostmann 1 , Daniël Lakens 2 , and Thomas W. Schubert 3
1 University of Amsterdam,
2 Utrecht University, and
3 Instituto Superior de Ciências do Trabalho e da Empresa, Lisbon, Portugal

Address correspondence to Nils B. Jostmann, Social Psychology, University of Amsterdam, Roeterstraat 15, 1081 WB Amsterdam, The Netherlands, e-mail:

ABSTRACT—Four studies show that the abstract concept of importance is grounded in bodily experiences of weight. Participants provided judgments of importance while they held either a heavy or a light clipboard. Holding a heavy clipboard increased judgments of monetary value (Study 1) and made participants consider fair decision-making procedures to be more important (Study 2). It also caused more elaborate thinking, as indicated by higher consistency between related judgments (Study 3) and by greater polarization of agreement ratings for strong versus weak arguments (Study 4). In line with an embodied perspective on cognition, these findings suggest that, much as weight makes people invest more physical effort in dealing with concrete objects, it also makes people invest more cognitive effort in dealing with abstract issues.

Written by huehueteotl

September 1, 2009 at 7:49 am

Posted in Psychology