Da Amazing Voice Inflection Device, known to scientists as DAVID, is like an auto-tune for emotion. (And yes, that is its actual name). In real time, psychologists can create a steady, unemotional voice like this one….
…and then tweak it to make it sound scared:
This program was developed for psychologists, so that they could test how people respond to different emotions in a laboratory setting. Higher pitches sound happier, lower ones sound sadder, and trembly voices are more afraid.
Playing with these pitches, scientists recently found some very curious results.
Your emotions are affected by the sound of your own voice
In research conducted in Japan and Europe, unsuspecting participants were told to read aloud from a book of short stories by Haruki Murakami. They read into a microphone and simultaneously heard their own voice played back through headphones.
Unknown to them, the voices being played back to the participants were being tweaked by researchers. And those tweaks could actually affect the moods of the participants.
Those who heard their own voices adjusted to be “happier” felt more positively; those who heard their voices become “sadder” felt less so. A control group showed these effects were significant â and manifested in a number of ways.
The participants took a survey that assessed their emotions. They also had their fingers hooked up to electrodes that could measure their levels of arousal. On this test, all the experimental groups all showed more emotional arousal than the control group. (The participants were both French and Japanese, which suggests the effect is generalizable across cultures.)
To some extent, this shouldn’t be surprising. We encode our speech with a wealth of emotional information, and we are able to decode the emotional voices of others. If someone sounds angry, we become fearful. If someone sounds happy, that emotion proves contagious, and we share in the joy.
What’s new here is the finding that we can be affected by the sound of our own voice. “When you hear someone else with an emotion, it makes sense for you to have an emotional reaction,” Jean-Julien Aucouturier, a co-author on the paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, tells me. “The finding demonstrates we do this on our own voice as well.”
The fake-it-till-you-make-it theory of well-being
There’s a longstanding idea in psychology that if we simulate emotions with our bodies â say, by smiling or standing up taller â it can actually alter our own moods. This is called the peripheral feedback effect, and scientists have demonstrated it in a few ways. People become happier when they hold a pencil in their mouths, which activates their smile muscles. People feel more powerful when placed in pose that maximizes body size.
Perhaps this is true of voice as well. One implication of Aucouturier’s research is that voice-based therapeutic intervention might be worth exploring: Imagine “happiness buds” you put in your ear that nudge you to be a bit cheerier.
That said, this is still early (it’s the first paper to report a peripheral feedback loop for voice). Aucouturier says he’s uncertain as to why the manipulation works, and the research opens more questions than it answers. “It makes no sense to be afraid of a voice, or be sympathetic with a voice sounding miserable, if you damn well know this voice is yours,” he says. “Why would people process their own information like this?”
It could be an accident. The manipulation hijacks the system we use to understand others. Or it could be a mechanism we use to keep our emotions in balance.
Overall, he says, psychologists don’t really understand how the brain encodes spoken language with emotion.
“Itâs really extraordinary if you think about it, how much subtle information Iâm able to produce with my voice,” he says. “Part of this is conscious, and part of this I donât even pay attention to.”