Lab member Mason Wehse wins an Undergraduate Research Program (URP) grant

Mason’s research project, entitled “Semantic satiation and the comprehension of emotional language,” tests competing theories of emotional language processing.

From Mason’s project abstract:

“Classical cognitive theory proposes that emotional language induces emotions in readers through activation of mediating emotion concepts, like “happy” or “sad” which in turn activate emotional feelings.   In contrast, embodied theory proposes that understanding emotional language involves a mental simulation that uses the same neural systems required in literally executing the emotion-specific actions described in the language.  For example, reading a happy sentence, such as, “You bound up the stairs to your lover’s apartment”, involves simulating the implied actions of approach, whereas the sad sentence “You open your email on your birthday to find no new emails” involves simulating actions of withdrawal.   In this account, the language-emotion link is unmediated by emotion concepts, and can be made directly through simulation of action.  In support of the latter theory, research has shown that fatiguing actions of approach or withdrawal slows down comprehension of happy or sad sentences, respectively (Mouilso, Glenberg, Havas, and Lindeman, 2007).  But can linguistic actions similarly impact emotional language processing?  One tool to test these competing theories is through the use of “semantic satiation,” whereby words that are repeated gradually lose their phenomenological meaning.  One study showed that semantic satiation of explicit emotion words (e.g., “anger”) negatively impacts a person’s ability to perceive emotions (e.g., anger) in facial expressions (Lindquist, Barrett, Bliss-Moreau, & Russell, 2006).  However, research has yet to show if semantic satiation can be used to fatigue the systems used in understanding emotional language, and whether the effect depends on satiating explicit emotion words vs. implied emotional action words, like “approach” and “withdraw”.

The present study seeks to explore if satiation of emotional words, either explicit (“happy”, “sad”, “angry”) or implicit (“approach”, “toward”, “avoid”, withdraw”) can impact emotional language processing.  Studying how language impacts emotion and action systems furthers the understanding of the relationship between these systems.  Knowledge of this relationship can have real world applications, such as in mental health counseling, in which semantic satiation could be used to desensitize language that clients find emotionally harmful.”

Lab manager Thomas Haasl wins a Summer Undergraduate Research (SURF) Fellowship

Congratulations to Tom, whose project is entitled, 

“Reading In-Between the Lines: Effects of Facial Muscle Fatigue on Emotional Language Comprehension”

How does reading language have a way of powerfully evoking emotions in readers? According to embodied theories of emotional language comprehension, neural activity involved in the literal experience of emotion is simulated, or reenacted, while reading emotional language. Studies have shown that people involuntarily execute emotional facial expressions compatible with the emotionality of the sentences they read. Emotional facial expressions and their facial feedback may play a role in this simulation process, and thereby facilitate the comprehension of compatible emotional sentences. For my SURF, I will explore the hypothesis that fatiguing facial muscles involved in smiling and frowning will impair the comprehension of happy and sad sentences, respectively. I will explore this hypothesis through the use of electromyography (EMG), a tool designed to transduce facial muscle activity into electric signals via recording electrodes affixed to the face. Participants will alternate holding smiling and frowning facial contractions until fatigue (i.e., decreased facial muscle activity as measured by EMG), and then read emotional sentences while reading times are measured. Fatiguing facial muscles involved in smiling should lead to increases in reading times for happy but not sad sentences, and vice versa for fatiguing facial muscles involved in frowning. I strongly believe that the SURF will allow me to develop the skills necessary to conduct research using EMG methods, explore the implications of my findings through the 2013-2014 academic year, and contribute to our understanding of how emotion and language interact.