July 20, 2006

It’s not what you said ..

By Michael Conlon

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Scientists reported on Friday what they
said was the first scientific evidence that people
unconsciously gesture with their voices.

"This is an aspect of language that has never been
explored," and one that could shed insight into the way that
people think, said Howard Nusbaum, chairman of the Department
of Psychology at the University of Chicago.

Nusbaum coauthored a paper in the Journal of Memory and
Language that reported on a group of experiments said to
provide the first evidence of "analog acoustic expression" --
people unconsciously modulating their voices in ways that
provide an additional channel of expression understood by

"We have only looked so far at the simplest, most obvious
forms of this communication. We will doubtless find more when
we look at more complicated, less obvious forms," Nusbaum said.

He added in an interview the phenomenon probably existed
across all languages, although it may be shaped in the same way
that different languages help determine physical gestures.

It would be difficult to determine if such verbal gestures
played a role in evolution, he said, although one speculative
piece of research has concluded gestures preceded language.

In one experiment, people looked at video screens with
animated dots and described whether they saw them going up or
going down. Separately, they read the sentences "It is going
up" or "It is going down" without any visuals.

In watching the dots go up, their pitch rose as they
followed the action, and lowered when the dots went down. The
same thing also happened when they read the sentences.

"The results demonstrate that speakers naturally use analog
acoustic expression when talking, even when there is no intent
to dramatize a description," the study said.

In another pair of experiments, people describing the
movement of a dot from left to right spoke faster as it moved
faster. When recordings of what they said were played,
listeners were able to determine which speaker was describing a
fast-moving dot and which a slow-moving one.