The Motor Theory of Speech Perception: When We Hear Angry Sounds

Listening to Angry Noises May Be Fueling the Fire

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Mirror neuron systems help us to learn from others in that when we see others performing a certain action, we mirror that same action through our own bodily movements. For example, we might cross our arms because our friend does. This system also influences other behaviors, though, as Professor Vishton explains.

Couple arguing in restaurant
Research shows that the brain responds in kind to the behaviors and tone of voice shown by the person speaking to us; a cycle of same response can develop between two speakers, even exchanging mean for mean. Photo By Roman Kosolapov / Shutterstock

Motor Theory of Speech Perception

The human brain doesn’t just exhibit this mirror pattern in terms of visually guided arm and hand actions. Substantial evidence supports the motor theory of speech perception. 

When you listen to someone speaking, particular regions of your brain parse the sentences and derive meaning from them. One of the important steps in that process is for your brain to activate the regions that would be involved in producing those same sounds that you recently heard from the speaker.

Evidence suggests that just listening to speech produces low levels of activation in your own vocal tract—in the particular muscles that you would use to produce the same sounds. Again, understanding what someone else is doing is accomplished by simulating, at a neural level, what you yourself would do to produce those same behaviors.

All of these examples involve sensorimotor control—movements of the body mediated by sensory inputs. Some recent work suggests, however, that this mirroring tendency isn’t limited to motor activities at all. 

Mirroring Aggressive Behavior

If someone behaves aggressively toward you, you don’t have to decide to respond aggressively. That will be your brain’s default response. When you observe the aggressive behavior, your brain will already be mirroring it, priming an in-kind response.

Imagine someone is yelling at you, exhibiting a contorted facial expression, and shaking his fist in your direction. Those three actions are strongly associated with angry, aggressive feelings. 

As your brain mentally simulates performing those actions, it will tend to activate the associated systems. Regions of the amygdala associated with the sympathetic nervous system will become active—a fight or flight mode of activity will be inspired.

Things that have tended to make you angry in the past are associated with this information, and the circuits that encode this information in the frontal lobes will become active as well. Your brain will be primed to recall words associated with anger—hit, hate, hurt, fight, and so on. 

Similarly, the neural circuits associated with the actions denoted by these words will be primed. It will be easier to think of and perform these behaviors.

You will hopefully choose not to respond angrily, but your brain is primed and ready to do so. An angry response will, in a neural sense, be easier.

Mirroring Nice Behavior

Conversely, if someone is very warm and friendly to you, your brain will mirror that. To understand when someone is smiling at you, waving, and warmly saying “Hello,” your brain will simulate performing those actions. 

The parasympathetic nervous system will become active. Your brain will prepare itself to say words and to perform actions typically linked with these observed actions—smiling, hugging, helping, and cooperating. You are likely to give a friendly and warm response back to that person. 

When you have these two experiences—confronting the angry person or the meeting the friendly person—it will feel as if you decided to say or do a particular thing, but the cognitive neuroscience perspective on this suggests that the conscious part of the decision is often just to release a set of behaviors that were already planned out by your mirroring brain.

This brings us back to our odd tip of being nice to someone who is being mean to you. When someone behaves aggressively toward you and toward your brain, you’ll have a natural tendency to respond in kind. 

Your brain will prepare to mirror the behavior and tone of voice shown by the person speaking to you. It will prepare to respond mean for mean and nice for nice. And the opposite is true, too. The other person’s brain will be preparing to respond to your behavior and tone of voice by mirroring them. Thus, the mean cycle would build between the two of you, going back and forth. If you can short-circuit this cycle, mean can change to not mean, sometimes very abruptly, and even change to nice.

In tomorrow’s article, Professor Vishton gives a detailed example that illustrates how you can turn around someone else’s frown, using the motor theory of speech perception.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.