Screams contain a ‘calling card’ for the vocalizer’s identity

Summary: Listeners can correctly identify whether pairs of screams originate from the same person or two different people. Findings suggest human screams convey a level of individual identity and shed new light on their evolutionary origin.

Source: Emory Health Sciences

Human screams convey a level of individual identity that may help explain their evolutionary origins, finds a study by scientists at Emory University.

PeerJ published the research, showing that listeners can correctly identify whether pairs of screams were produced by the same person or two different people — a critical prerequisite to individual recognition.

“Our findings add to our understanding of how screams are evolutionarily important,” says Harold Gouzoules, senior author of the paper and an Emory professor of psychology. “The ability to identify who is screaming is likely an adaptive mechanism. The idea is that you wouldn’t respond equally to just anyone’s scream. You would likely respond more urgently to a scream from your child, or from someone else important to you.”

Jonathan Engelberg is the first author of the paper and Jay Schwartz is a co-author. They are both Emory PhD candidates in Gouzoules’ Bioacoustics Lab.

The ability to recognize individuals by distinctive cues or signals is essential to the organization of social behavior, the authors note, and humans are adept at making identity-related judgements based on speech — even when the speech is heavily altered. Less is known, however, about identity cues in nonlinguistic vocalizations, such as screams.

Gouzoules first began researching monkey screams in 1980, before becoming one of the few scientists studying human screams about 10 years ago.

“The origin of screams was likely to startle a predator and make it jump, perhaps allowing the prey a small chance to escape,” Gouzoules says. “That’s very different from calling out for help.”

He theorizes that as some species became more social, including monkeys and other primates, screams became a way to recruit help from relatives and friends when someone got into trouble. Previous research by Gouzoules and others suggests that non-human primates are able to identify whether a scream is coming from an individual that is important to them. Some researchers, however, have disputed the evidence, arguing that the chaotic and inconsistent nature of screams does not make them likely conduits for individual recognition.

Gouzoules wanted to test whether humans could determine if two fairly similar screams were made by the same person or a different person. His Bioacoustics Lab has amassed an impressive library of high-intensity, visceral sounds — from TV and movie performances to the screams of non-actors reacting to actual events on YouTube videos.

For the PeerJ paper, the lab ran experiments that included 104 participants. The participants listened to audio files of pairs of screams on a computer, without any visual cues for context. Each pair was presented two seconds apart and participants were asked to determine if the screams came from the same person or a different person.

In some trials, the two screams came from two different callers, but were matched by age, gender and the context of the scream. In other trials, the screams came from the same caller but were two different screams matched for context. And in a third trial, the stimulus pairs consisted of a scream and a slightly modified version of itself, to make it longer or shorter than the original.

This shows a young boy screaming into a microphone

The ability to recognize individuals by distinctive cues or signals is essential to the organization of social behavior, the authors note, and humans are adept at making identity-related judgements based on speech — even when the speech is heavily altered. Less is known, however, about identity cues in nonlinguistic vocalizations, such as screams. The image is credited to The Emory Health Sciences.

For all three of the experiments, most of the participants were able to correctly judge most of the time whether the screams were from the same person or not.

“Our results provide empirical evidence that screams carry enough information for listeners to discriminate between different callers,” Gouzoules says. “Although screams may not be acoustically ideal for signaling a caller’s identity, natural selection appears to have adequately shaped them so they are good enough to do the job.”

The PeerJ paper is part of an extensive program of research into screams by Gouzoules. In previous work, his lab has found that listeners cannot distinguish acted screams from naturally occurring screams.

In upcoming papers, he is zeroing in on how people determine whether they are hearing a scream or some other vocalization and how they perceive the emotional context of a scream — judging whether it’s due to happiness, anger, fear or pain.

About this neuroscience research article

Source:
Emory Health Sciences
Media Contacts:
Carol Clark – Emory Health Sciences
Image Source:
The image is credited to The Emory Health Sciences.

Original Research: Open access
“Do human screams permit individual recognition?”. Jonathan W. M. Engelberg, Jay W. Schwartz, Harold Gouzoules.
PeerJ. doi:10.7717/peerj.7087

Abstract

The recognition of individuals through vocalizations is a highly adaptive ability in the social behavior of many species, including humans. However, the extent to which nonlinguistic vocalizations such as screams permit individual recognition in humans remains unclear. Using a same-different vocalizer discrimination task, we investigated participants’ ability to correctly identify whether pairs of screams were produced by the same person or two different people, a critical prerequisite to individual recognition. Despite prior theory-based contentions that screams are not acoustically well-suited to conveying identity cues, listeners discriminated individuals at above-chance levels by their screams, including both acoustically modified and unmodified exemplars. We found that vocalizer gender explained some variation in participants’ discrimination abilities and response times, but participant attributes (gender, experience, empathy) did not. Our findings are consistent with abundant evidence from nonhuman primates, suggesting that both human and nonhuman screams convey cues to caller identity, thus supporting the thesis of evolutionary continuity in at least some aspects of scream function across primate species.

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