Just about everybody knows that a smile is just a frown turned upside down, but a moan or a sigh when the bedroom lights are low can be downright confusing to people from different cultures.
Facial expressions communicate emotions pretty faithfully, regardless of a person's origin, but some nonverbal vocalizations, such as those uttered in the bedroom, can get lost in translation.
To figure out which kinds of sounds are innately human and which depend on cultural cues, researchers at University College London played vocal signals to two groups of people who were about as different from each other as they could find — native English-speaking men and women from Britain, and a similar group of semi-nomadic Himba people of the Kaokoland region in northern Namibia.
The same approach has been used to demonstrate that there are certain universal facial expressions for six basic emotions: happiness, anger, fear, sadness, disgust and surprise. But the way people communicate certain emotions is apparently learned. Within a culture, they can pickup vocal cues, because there are usually a set of shared rules.
The Himba were told a story and asked to match it to certain sounds made by British actors, for example, amusement with laughs, anger with growls, and fear and screams. Relief sounds were sighs, and sadness was expressed with sobs. Sensual pleasure sounds were moans.
Listen to the Brits expresss achievement, amusement, anger, disgust, fear, relief, sadness, sensual pleasure, and surprise:
An equivalent set of Himba sounds and stories were produced for the British to listen to.
Here go the Himbas with the same emotional drill:
Probably because they are used to these kinds of tests, the Brits did better than the Himba in picking up on cues for anger, disgust and fear. The English were least adept in identifying the sounds of sensual pleasure and relief.
Likewise, the Himba's lowest score came from trying to figure out the noises Brits make when they are romping. A sensual sigh, for example, seemed to make no sense to them at all.
Overall, the sounds of most emotions, especially the negative ones, crossed cultural boundaries with ease.
Why the problem communicating good times? Positive feelings can promote social cohesion, the researchers surmise, so it might not be a good idea to share them with someone outside the group. These include sounds for emotions evoked by pride and relief and making love. The results were published in The Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences earlier this year.
We just just caught on to the work, thanks to a write-up by the Faculty of 1000 Medicine, a bunch of brainiacs who highlight medical journal papers they think are especially important. Their take home messageon this paper:
Consistent with the facial expression data, the vocal signals of the six basic emotions (anger, disgust, fear, sadness, joy and surprise) were reliably identified by all subjects regardless of the origins of the stimuli. This consistency of these emotional signals across cultures supports the notion of universal affects shared by all humans.
But the cultural variation for positive emotions, the F1000 folks write, does suggest that some vocal signals may be shaped by social learning within cultures.