Welcome to the Lab for Language and Emotion!
Language can cause powerful changes in the emotions of readers and listeners. Yet language is ambiguous at every level of analysis. How can language cause such reliable changes in our emotions? The reverse is also true - our emotions can change how we interpret language. How does this happen? These are the primary questions we pursue in the Laboratory for Language and Emotion.
The Laboratory uses a variety of research tools to tackle these questions. Behavioral studies help us understand the interaction of language and emotion at the psychological level. We also used electrophysiology methods to track embodied effects of language at the biological level. We're also pursuing neurophysiological explanations with tools designed to take advantage of the brain's inherent plasticity. Students who work in the lab are exposed to all of these techniques.
Previous research has shown that manipulations of participants' facial expressions of emotion changes the speed with which they comprehend emotional sentences. For example, pleasant sentences are read faster while smiling than while frowning, and vice versa for unpleasant sentences. This finding helped support theories of embodied cognition, and show that emotional states interact with sentence understanding.
Subsequently, we showed what happens to facial muscles when participants read emotional sentences naturally (without a manipulation of facial posture). As predicted, when reading happy sentences, readers showed increased activity in the zygomaticus majoris or smile muscle. But when participants read sad or angry sentences, activity increased in the corrugator or frowning muscle.
These findings strongly suggest that facial expressions of emotion contribute to emotional language comprehension. But the strongest evidence for this hypothesis comes from a study in which we blocked facial feedback through the use of Botox - a neurotoxin that produces facial muscle paralysis in cosmetic patients. While we only blocked the corrugator muscle, participants were asked to read happy, sad, and angry sentences before and two weeks after Botox injections. The remarkable finding was that the cosmetic procedure slowed reading times for angry and sad, but not happy, sentences. That is, blocking facial feedback selectively affected those sentences that refer to the emotion that couldn't be expressed in the face.
This last finding was the first to show that botox affects human cognition.
Our latest research is aimed at understanding the mechanisms by which emotions and language interact. We are pursuing this question from the perspective of embodied cognition.