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Processing of prosody

prosodyPhD student: Jurriaan Witteman
Supervisors: Vincent van Heuven and Niels O. Schiller

How we say something can be as important as what we say. Using these melodic and rhythmic aspects of speech (also known as 'prosody') we can communicate our emotions (whether we are happy or angry) but also the linguistic structure of an utterance (e.g. whether what we say is meant as a question or a statement). How does the human brain process such prosodic information? Using meta-analyses we have shown that both sides ('hemispheres') of the brain are necessary to perceive prosodic information, but that the right hemisphere is more important than the left for the perception of emotional prosody. Furthermore we have shown that this right hemispheric superiority in emotional prosody perception can be explained by superiority of the right auditory processing areas in the processing of acoustic properties that are important for the perception of emotional speech such as pitch. By using measurements of the electrical activity of the brain ('electroencephalography') we showed that the brain prioritizes the perception of emotional prosody as compared to linguistic prosody, possibly reflecting the existence of a 'hard-wired' system dedicated to the detection of conspecifics' emotions. Lastly, using measurements of regional oxygen use by the brain ('functional magnetic resonance imaging') we have shown that different regions in the brain are active when people actively analyze emotional prosody versus when people do not pay attention to emotional prosody. The acquired knowledge is not only interesting from a fundamental cognitive neuroscience point of view, but could also advance our understanding of neuropsychiatric disorders that are accompanied with prosody perception disturbances, such as schizophrenia and autism.