Do you speak emotion?

Updated: Jan 10, 2020

Verbal communication lies at the centre of human interaction. In order to understand and produce speech, we rely on brain regions including the Broca’s and the Wernicke’s areas. Damage to these areas, for instance after a stroke, can lead to Aphasia, which refers to difficulties with producing or understanding speech.

Another rarer speech disorder that can be caused by damage to the brain is Emotional dysprosody, which involves difficulties with expressing emotion through speech, as well as difficulties with understanding the emotional content of other peoples’ speech. If you think about it, we are able to express a lot of emotion through our speech. Pitch, intensity, pauses, and variations in melody may all reveal something about how we feel in the moment, and how we feel about the topic of conversation.

I have asked Siri Nicoline Veseth, clinical psychologist and group therapist, a few questions about speech and emotion:

–In therapy, do you focus on the way people say something, or do you concentrate more on what they are actually saying?

-Both, but there is definitely a lot of information encoded in the way people communicate something. For instance, the way we say something may reflect why we say it, and whether it is easy or difficult for us to talk about it. The delivery may also reveal which feelings we associate with the topic, and give an indication of the type of memories that is being triggered.

The way people say something also relies on whom they are talking to. I see this in group therapy all the time; people communicate differently with someone they feel safe with versus someone they don’t know or trust. In general, we also tend to communicate differently with our parents, boss, colleagues, and partner, both in terms of what we say and how we say it.

–The way we communicate also differs according to the context of the conversation?

- Yes, context definitely matters. For example, I am one of five siblings. When I’m alone with either of them in a neutral place (a place with no association to our childhood), the communication resembles that of two independent adults. However, when all of us are together, especially in our childhood home, or in the presence of someone else who were there during our childhood (for example our parents), we seem to time travel back to the communication pattern that we had 15-20 years ago. I think this is a subconscious pattern that we’re drawn into, one that we have little control over unless we actively try to change it.

–Therapy is often called the 'talking cure'. How can talking help solving a range of issues?

- Although therapy may involve more than just talking, an important part of the healing/helping/curing process is to tell your story and have someone listen to it. This might seem basic, and you might think that you could do this with friends or family, and to a certain degree I think you can. However, with a professional listener, you can speak freely and without expectations or judgment. There are also some things that can be too complicated to solve with friends or family. For example, we may not always know exactly what our problems are, we may just feel sad, anxious, stressed or irritated, or have a feeling that ‘something is not right’. In this case, the therapist will try to detect underlying emotions through speech and body language, in order to help people to get a better understanding of their difficulties.

It is clear that we do speak emotion, and that our underlying emotions often can be revealed from the way that we say something. The ability to express emotion through speech, as well as understanding the emotional content of other peoples’ speech, is an important brain function that helps us to communicate in our daily lives. This function also guides therapists in their work, which often involves the art of ‘reading between the lines’ of what people say. On this note, something for next week: See if you can keep track of how your communication varies depending on who it is you’re talking to and the context of the conversation.

- Ann-Marie