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As we listen to other people speak, we can usually determine whether they are happy, sad, bored, nervous, and so on, based on the sound of their voice.

A new study has found that we may actually be doing this with our own voices as well — listening to pick up on our own emotional states — rather than simply using our voices to reflect how we already feel.

For the study, researchers developed a digital audio platform that is able to change the emotional tone of people’s voices to make them sound happier, sadder or more fearful right as they are speaking (not listening to an older recording). The findings show that while listening to their altered voices, participants’ emotional states change to match the new emotion.

“Very little is known about the mechanisms behind the production of vocal emotion,” said lead author Jean-Julien Aucouturier, Ph.D., from the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), France.

“Previous research has suggested that people try to manage and control their emotions, for example hold back an expression or reappraise feelings. We wanted to investigate what kind of awareness people have of their own emotional expressions.”

During the experiment, participants read a short story aloud while hearing their own voice, altered to sound happier, sadder or more fearful, through a headset.

The findings show that the participants were unaware that their voices were being manipulated, even as their emotional state changed in accordance with the manipulated emotion in their voices. This suggests that people do not always control their own voice to meet a specific goal and that people listen to their own voice to learn how they are feeling.

“The relationship between the expression and experience of emotions has been a long-standing topic of disagreement in the field of psychology,” said Petter Johansson, Ph.D., one of the authors from Lund University, Sweden. “This is the first evidence of direct feedback effects on emotional experience in the auditory domain.”

The researchers developed algorithms to simulate the acoustic components of emotional vocalizations. For example, to make a voice sound happier, the researchers manipulated the speaker’s original pitch, inflection, and range to make it sound more positive, confident, and excited.

The researchers believe this novel audio platform opens up many new areas of research.

“Previously, this kind of emotion manipulation has not been done on running speech, only on recorded segments,” said Aucouturier. “We are making a version of the voice manipulation platform available as open-source on our website, and we invite anyone to download and experiment with the tools.”

The researchers believe the findings could help enhance the emotional impact of Karaoke or live singing performances, or perhaps alter the emotional atmosphere of conversations in online meetings and gaming.

Importantly, the findings could open the door for new types of psychological therapies, particularly for patients with mood disorders. For example, a patient might experience a positive mood change from retelling emotional memories or events in a modified tone of voice.

The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Source: Lund University