A Universal ‘Language’ Connects Humans and the Animal Kingdom

July 27, 2017

New research suggests that the ability to intuit emotional states from vocalization is hardwired in humans and land animals.

O ver a century ago, naturalist Charles Darwin observed that all humans, as well as other animals, exhibit and express emotion in remarkably similar ways. He theorized that vocal expressions of feelings date back to the earliest terrestrial species, hinting that all land animals — and birds too — share a basic, inherent understanding of each other.

New research not only supports Darwin’s views, but also identifies a universal “language” of arousal emitted and understood by amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. The findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, suggest that we are at least somewhat like the famous fictional character Doctor Dolittle, who could decipher animal communications with ease.

“Our study shows that humans are naturally able to recognize emotional arousal across all classes of vocalizing animals,” said lead author Piera Filippi, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Aix-Marseille and the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. “This outcome may find an important application in animal welfare, suggesting that humans may rely on their intuition to assess when animals are stressed.”

Prior research additionally suggests that animals understand human emotional vocal expressions. Pet owners are often more attuned to this, given the reactions that dogs, cats, horses, birds, rodents, and more have to a range of owner outbursts, from angry scolding to happy praise.

For the latest study, Filippi, senior author Onur Gunturkun, and their team went beyond investigating such a familiar collection of animal pets. They instead gathered 180 recordings of vocalizations from nine different and very diverse species: hourglass treefrog, black-capped chickadee, common raven, American alligator, African bush elephant, giant panda, domestic pig, and Barbary macaque. People who spoke English, Mandarin, and German were then recruited to evaluate the levels of arousal communicated in each animal recording.

The human listeners, no matter their native language, aced the tests. This indicates that human ability to assess vocal expressions of arousal — whether emitted due to sexual bliss, infant distress, or terror over a predator — is biologically rooted and somehow cemented in our DNA.

The scientists further conducted an acoustic analysis of the recordings. Pairing this data with the findings concerning the human listeners, the researchers discovered that people use multiple acoustic parameters to infer levels of arousal in vocalizations. Mainly, however, humans rely on fundamental frequency cues and the forcefulness of the sounds.

The primary explanation for the ability, seemingly shared across much of the animal kingdom, has to do with the body-sound connection.

“Across vocalizing animals, higher levels of emotional intensity may induce the contraction of muscles that are required for vocal production,” Filippi explained. “This modification alters the quality of the sounds produced, often resulting in changes related to the perceived frequency of the sound.”

Whether the vocalizer is a pissed off pig or a playful elephant, the resulting sounds will then be directly affected by muscle contractions that, in turn, are impacted by the animal’s emotions at the time.

The researchers believe their study’s findings could extend to marine species with audible forms of communication. We therefore should be able to identify a dolphin’s levels of arousal, for example, just by hearing its vocalizations, and vice versa.

It may be that skills for vocal expression in marine and terrestrial species evolved from a common ancestor. This underlying connection, as well as the shared basic universal “language,” are tied to critical life-and-death concerns.

“The ability to recognize emotional content across diverse species may have favored the perception of heightened levels of threat or danger in the surrounding environment,” Filippi said. “This may have increased survival opportunities.”

Infant distress calls appear to be the most easily understood, from baby alligators calling for their mothers to young giant pandas squeaking, growling, barking, and huffing. The researchers suspect that this primal ability to decipher baby speak is “particularly salient to caregivers.”

Some animals can even manipulate humans via their infant-resembling cries. Earlier research, for example, found that cats can purr in the same frequency range of a crying baby when soliciting food from their owners.

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