Psychology Research News

Dr. Peter Walla, head of the Psychology department, was recently featured as a topic editor in the Ebook: The Janus-Face of language: Where are the emotions in words and the words in emotions?

About this Research Topic:
Language has long been considered as independent from emotions such as if the information conveyed by words would be mentally represented in an abstract, propositional format. Research of the last few years however accumulated empirical evidence against this theoretical belief, the purely cognitive-based foundation of language. In particular, via research about reading and listening to emotion words, irrespective of emotion category, it has been shown that emotional brain networks were activated, emotional facial expressions occurred and action tendencies of approach and avoidance were primed. In addition, visually presented emotional content is processed in the visual cortex in similar time-windows as for words, pictures and faces. For words, even earlier emotional facilitation has been reported occasionally, indicating that emotional language content is able to circumvent in-depth semantic analysis. But this is only one side of the coin. Very recent research putting words into context suggests that words can be powerful emotion regulators. For instance, when paired with personal pronouns emotional words can provide a window to own feelings; they enhance activity in medial prefrontal brain areas, the amygdala and the insula, and additionally alter the decoding of emotions from other input signals such as the human face and voice. On the other hand, reducing the accessibility of emotion words experimentally decreases emotion recognition accuracy and having no words for feelings at all is symptomatic for emotional blindness observed in many clinical disorders such as depression.

All these observations support a close relationship between language and emotions at the level of word meaning as a specific evolutionary achievement of the human species. As such, this relationship seems to be different from the one between emotions and speech, where emotional meaning is conveyed by nonverbal features of the voice. But what does this relationship then imply theoretically for the processing of emotional information? Is the information about an emotion presented in a word based on a cognitive representation or is it encoded in a yet unclear way in the sensorimotor and affective functions of the body? Then, what role do particularly somatosensory and visceral experiences play in the generation of emotional word meaning? Or do emotion effects in word processing set the stage for “new” models that combine elements of an embodied and semantic network approach?

The present research topic aims at serving as a platform for studies answering the following questions by utilizing behavioral and neuroscientific research methods a) do emotions and emotional feelings generate emotional meaning at the level of words and b) how does emotional information conveyed by words modulate and regulate emotional feelings. In contrast to research that focused on one or the other aspect this research topic will take both sides into consideration to fully explain the reciprocal, bidirectional relationship between emotions and language and its relevance for understanding human behavior.