Reduced sensitivity to emotional prosody in congenital amusia rekindles the musical protolanguage hypothesis

William Forde Thompson*, Manuela M. Marin, Lauren Stewart

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract

A number of evolutionary theories assume that music and language have a common origin as an emotional protolanguage that remains evident in overlapping functions and shared neural circuitry. The most basic prediction of this hypothesis is that sensitivity to emotion in speech prosody derives from the capacity to process music. We examined sensitivity to emotion in speech prosody in a sample of individuals with congenital amusia, a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by deficits in processing acoustic and structural attributes of music. Twelve individuals with congenital amusia and 12 matched control participants judged the emotional expressions of 96 spoken phrases. Phrases were semantically neutral but prosodic cues (tone of voice) communicated each of six emotional states: happy, tender, afraid, irritated, sad, and no emotion. Congenitally amusic individuals were significantly worse than matched controls at decoding emotional prosody, with decoding rates for some emotions up to 20% lower than that of matched controls. They also reported difficulty understanding emotional prosody in their daily lives, suggesting some awareness of this deficit. The findings support speculations that music and language share mechanisms that trigger emotional responses to acoustic attributes, as predicted by theories that propose a common evolutionary link between these domains.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)19027-19032
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Volume109
Issue number46
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 13 Nov 2012

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