Welcome to the Laboratory 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
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
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
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.