Fear, surprise, awe. Desire, ecstasy, relief.
These emotions are not distinct, but interconnected, across the gradient of human experience. At least that’s what a new paper from researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, Washington University, and Stockholm University proposes. The accompanying interactive map, which charts the sounds we make and how we feel about them, will likely persuade you to agree.
Drag your cursor over the map, and you can hear as a series of screams go from the blood-curdling fear of death to the “woo” of a roller coaster ride. You can hear the “mmm” of spotting a brownie behind the glass at a bakery become the “mmm” of a sexual encounter. It’s a remarkably convincing audio-visual thesis on the spectrum of human feelings, and how we vocalize them. For researchers, it was a way of illustrating a universal phenomenon that, until now, we’ve actually known very little about.
The study analyzed the “vocal bursts” (non-word utterances) people make. Believed to predate language itself, these bursts are sounds like cries, laughs, oohs, and ahhs. Of course, people laugh for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes a joke is hilarious and you can’t help it. Other times, you may have said something extraordinarily stupid or insensitive, and a nervous chuckle feels like the only way to acknowledge the moment.
To get some insight into this vastly complicated behavior, the research team recorded a massive sample set of 2,032 different vocal bursts in a laboratory settings, gathered from 56 people from the U.S., Sinagpore, India, and Kenya. Then it tasked over a thousand other participants (English language speakers from around the world) to interpret the sounds. They weren’t simply asked “is this a laugh,” but instead were tasked with identifying the emotion at play–like disgust, sympathy, positively surprised, or negatively surprised. Then they were asked to rate the sounds with a bit more nuance: Does the speaker feel pleasant? Dominant? Safe?
What scientists learned from all this data was that people are able to identify 24 distinct emotions from our vocal bursts–almost twice the number previously believed–but also, that the vocalizations are a means to detect the hidden gradient between heady concepts like “sympathy” or “love.” Mapped out, it’s almost as if our interconnected emotions form continents, each with their uniquely varied terrain. If nothing else, you’ll never look at a brownie the same way again. Try the interactive map yourself here. And as long as you’re on the topic, take a look at another map of emotions–commissioned by the Dalai Lama himself–here.