By Steven G. Mehta

In the movie American Pie, there is a character named Alison who always said the phrase, “one time in band camp….”  Everytime she said the phrase, she would have this whimsical lilt to her voice. Initially, the main characters ignored her (partially because of her “annoying” voice), but eventually in the series it turned out she was a very empathetic person who helped the main characters in their endeavors.  Well it turns out that Alison’s linguistic inflection have been found to scientifically make her more empathetic.

A new study has found that being able to change intonation in speech may be a sign of superior empathy?  The new study finds that people use the same brain regions to produce and understand intonation in speech.  The study also suggests that people learn by imitating through so-called mirror neurons. In other words, people learn how to speak by mirroring others’ prosody — the music, rhythm, and intonation of speech.

The study also finds interestingly that the higher a person scores on standard tests of empathy, the more activity they have in their prosody-producing areas of the brain.  So increased empathic ability is linked to the ability to perceive prosody as well as activity in these motor regions, said authors Lisa Aziz-Zadeh and Tong Sheng of USC, and Anahita Gheytanchi of the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology.

“Prosody is one of the main ways that we communicate with each other.” “If you have a pet, they basically are understanding your prosody,” Aziz-Zadeh said.

Studying prosody is actually looking at the message that is being sent from the tones, intonation, and rhythm of the words.  Studies have shown clearly that a huge percentage of communication is in the form of understanding prosody.

Based on this study, it is not clear whether empathy brings about prosodic activity or whether frequent use of prosody can somehow help to develop empathy.

However, the ability to understand communications non-verbally is an important skill in being able to empathize. My suspicions are that a person who can understand more non-verbally or through prosody will be increasing their ability to be empathetic. In other areas of communication, it has been found that mirroring can increase the ability to be liked.  There appears to be no reason why mirroring of the voice wouldn’t also create a reaction in the person who is mirroring.  More research on this will certainly be enlightening.

Journal Reference:

Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, Tong Sheng, Anahita Gheytanchi. Common Premotor Regions for the Perception and Production of Prosody and Correlations with Empathy and Prosodic AbilityPLoS ONE, 2010; 5 (1): e8759 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0008759