News Home
Quick Bites
News Archive
News Channel
Special Features
On AirNewsClassical
School Closings
WKSU Support
Funding for WKSU is made possible in part through support from the following businesses and organizations.

Metro RTA

Area Agency on Aging 10B, Inc.

Akron General

For more information on how your company or organization can support WKSU, download the WKSU Media Kit.

(WKSU Media Kit PDF icon )

Donate Your Vehicle to WKSU

Programs Schedule Make A Pledge Member BenefitsFAQ/HelpContact Us
Health and Medicine

Exploradio: Sound and emotion
Researchers at the Northeast Ohio Medical University are unlocking the secrets of our emotional responses to sound
This story is part of a special series.

Reporter / Host
Jeff St. Clair
We are hard-wired to respond emotionally to the nuances of the human voice. Research shows the amygdala, deep inside the brain, decides which sounds are pleasant or disturbing.
Courtesy of Jeff St.Clair
Download (WKSU Only)
In The Region:

A beautiful piece of music or a baby’s laugh can make us feel good. While scary sounds make us shake in our boots. 

Scientists are discovering how the brain decides whether a sound should bring a smile, or makes your pulse race with fear, and how the brain can tell the difference. 

In this week’s Exploradio, we explore the connections between sound and emotion

Exploradio: Sound and emotion

Other options:
Windows Media / MP3 Download (3:59)

(Click image for larger view.)

What is the amygdala?
We are hard-wired to respond emotionally to the sound of the human voice, Sometimes, that means grinning with YouTube’s laughing baby.

Or cringing at the sound of a movie drill sergeant.

Researchers are narrowing in on how the brain decides what makes speech pleasurable, or disturbing. Dr. Jeff Wenstrup heads a team studying sound and emotion at the Northeast Ohio Medical University.  

He says a variety of areas of the brain are affected by this interaction between speech and emotions and in particular a region of the brain called the amygdala, which is a center of emotional expression.

The amygdala, deep inside the brain is part of the limbic system, a set of brain structures that control emotion and memory.

No just for fear 
Wenstrup says the amygdala used to be thought of as mainly channeling fear in the brain. But a more complicated picture is emerging on how the amygdala orchestrates reactions to a variety of sounds.  He says, "They could be angry sounds, they could be pleasant sounds, but the key is that they’re important sounds, and that seems to be one of the jobs of the amygdala, to decide whether a sound is important or not.”

Wenstrup and his team are trying to figure out how the amygdala does this not in humans, but in creatures that live entirely in a world of sound: bats.

Inside the Wenstrup lab, graduate student Marie Gadziola measures the electrical output of amygdala neurons in bats.  She's learning to speak their language.  She says the neurons fire differently for different vocalizations. 

When Wenstrup pokes his head into a soundproof chamber holding a pair of bats fitted with electrodes, the electrodes measure the output of their amygdala neurons.

Gadziola says the neurons of the amygdala are very responsive to social vocalizations that the animals make.  She says, "they respond with these extremely long-lasting discharges of the neurons when the amygdala gets jazzed up and wants to show its response.”

Unlocking the amygdala code 
Wenstrup and his team believe that how long the amygdala neurons are firing helps the brain decide whether a sound is friendly or to be feared.

“The sound may only happen in tens or hundreds of milliseconds but the emotional response lasts much longer than that, so we think this prolonged activity of amygdala neurons is a way for it to orchestrate emotional responses.”

The implication of Wentrup’s research is that, for people with extreme emotional responses to sound, such as soldiers suffering from PTSD from battlefield blasts, the amygdala is too turned on, and, "hyper-responsive to any sound that comes in.”

Wenstrup’s research on bats may lead to an understanding of how people with a range of disorders can be helped.  Problems in the amygdala could affect people with autism, who have trouble interpreting emotion in speech, or people suffering from tinnitus -- a constant ringing in the ears.

Wenstrup says the problem of tinnitus in the military is extremely high.  Currently 1.5 million veterans are being treated for the condition at the cost of more than a billion dollars per year.

This month Jeff Wenstrup received a half million dollar grant from the National Institute on Deafness, part of $2.4 million in funding over the next five years, as he gradually pieces together an understanding of the mechanisms inside our brain linking sound and emotion.

Add Your Comment


E-mail: (not published, only used to contact you about your comment)


Page Options

Print this page

E-Mail this page / Send mp3

Share on Facebook

Support for Exploradio
provided by:

Stories with Recent Comments

Charter reform bill includes controversial change for some teachers
I work for a former White Hat charter school; it was sold to another (for-profit) company this past summer and we were told that they would not pay into STRS/PE...

Bhutanese resettlement has had a big economic impact
Informative especially for nonmembers of North Hill. I appreciate the fact that you mention that the younger generation has an easier time than the elders but t...

Ottawa County Commissioner sworn in as new house member
Congratulations on your new appointment to the Ohio House. I'm certain you will do an outstanding job in your new role representing our district. When you have...

Holden Arboretum opens a new canopy walk and emergent tower
Visited the Holden Arboretum today to witness the incredible work you did constructing the tower and bridges.WOW! Very impressed. Knew the build had to be great...

Local club works to bring back the once-prevalent American elm
I would love to help! Where would I get some of the new Strain so I could plant them?

Four Geauga school districts consider consolidating on the Kent State campus
Berkshire was smart to merge with Ledgemont because it had shrinking enrollment and excess capacity at its high school. Now that Cardinal is dragging its feet ...

Ohio Rep. John Boccieri sworn into office and hopes to look for 'middle ground' with colleagues
Welcome back to the Statehouse, John. You are a terrific representative in the truest sense always representing the people's voice in teh district you serve. ...

Lawmakers call for indefinite freeze on Green Energy standards
It's a shame the Hudson Rep. Chooses to mimic the words of the extreme right senator on his way out to join ALEC when we know the Pope was just here because of...

Youngstown Schools file suit against the Ohio Department of Education to stop the implementation of an academic distress commission
Voters should ask WHY this plan was rushed into law under the cover of darkness. What clues point to the beneficiaries of this plan? Both Patrick O'Donnell of...

Copyright © 2015 WKSU Public Radio, All Rights Reserved.

In Partnership With:

NPR PRI Kent State University

listen in windows media format listen in realplayer format Car Talk Hosts: Tom & Ray Magliozzi Fresh Air Host: Terry Gross A Service of Kent State University 89.7 WKSU | NPR.Classical.Other smart stuff. NPR Senior Correspondent: Noah Adams Living on Earth Host: Steve Curwood 89.7 WKSU | NPR.Classical.Other smart stuff. A Service of Kent State University