Posts Tagged ‘Prosody’

When my daughter was small, I had a fail-proof way of getting her attention sometimes. I use the same method to get the attention of a room full of high-spirited students when it’s time to begin class. And I trained the family dog to respond to a similar method as well. What I do is simply speak in Broken Record at a whisper. Not only does it take a lot less energy, but I find using it to be unfailingly effective at getting attention.

Aural Assault

By contrast, when I listen to any of the four candidates currently running for office in America, I often feel as if I’m being aurally assaulted. If I fully focus on voice tone, rhythm and cadence, and don’t pay particular attention to the words they’re saying, I can’t really listen to any of them for more than a few minutes. I soon notice myself glazing over and going numb. (Perhaps that’s what they intend? If it is, they might want to consider some more powerful creative possibilities).

Sweet nothings, baby-byes, lullabies, pillow talk – they all have great power, and could be put into service much more than they are by parents and politicians alike. Why? Because they all work the same soothing magic on the brain’s limbic structures. They repeatedly activate the resonance circuitry – those pathways between the amygdala, hypocampus, hypothalamus and the prefrontal cortex. We tend to like and trust people who activate our resonance circuits, and when we’re not limbically hijacked, we tend to be much more agreeable, relaxed and amenable to outside influence.

Practicing Prosody

The formal term for this way of speaking and listening is prosody. Wikipedia has this to say about prosody:

prosody is the rhythm, stress, and intonation of speech. Prosody may reflect the emotional state of a speaker; whether an utterance is a statement, a question, or a command; whether the speaker is being ironic or sarcastic; emphasis, contrast and focus, and other elements of language which may not be encoded by grammar.

Emotional prosody describes the perception of feelings expressed in speech, and was recognized by Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man to predate the evolution of human language: “Even monkeys express strong feelings in different tones – anger and impatience by low notes, fear and pain by high notes.” Native speakers listening to actors reading neutral text to project emotions were able to recognize happiness 62%, anger 95%, surprise 91%, sadness 81%, and neutral tone 76% correctly in trials.

There continues to be a lot of research in neuroscience on prosody. Search through Google Scholar and you’ll come up with studies like these:

Prosody and the Right Hemisphere

Brain Regions and Prosody

Pitch, Melody and the Brain

What makes prosody particularly interesting to me is that it seems to provide direct access to structures in the right brain, the places where early implicit memories are primarily stored. Those are the memories we all have that we don’t have words for – memories of things that happened to us shortly after conception up to the time we began acquiring language. Many of these memories live in us as something attachment researchers call “The Unthought Known.”  These are things we know, but can’t easily put into words. These are memories, often overwhelming and disorganized, that talk therapy can’t help much to integrate. Prosody is why music soothes the savage beast, and why a therapy like psychoanalysis can go on for years with little real change taking place. Much of our early wounding is stored in imagery and somatic sensation, and implicit memories are inaccessible using language alone. (Check out The Limits of Talk for more detailed information).

Voice Magic

If you want to compare and contrast people using prosody well, listen to any one of the current political speeches, and then go and listen to the speakers in this short YouTube video. Pay particular attention to how each of them makes you feel in your stomach, chest, neck and back. Which works to increase tension? Which works to release it?

All-Star Voices

How would you like to go to sleep each night having one of these sweet voices reading you a bedtime story?


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I was 24 years old when I met my father after an absence of nearly twenty years. Like many fatherless kids, I had no idea what I’d missed by his absence, although alexithymia – no words for emotion – seems to be one thing I gained. We spent a number of days together trying to get to know one another over the next year, but I had no idea how to respond or really be in relationship to him. One thought that frequently arose after a day spent together was: “I’m sure glad I missed twenty years of this.”

“This” was apparently in part, the result of his role in the Merchant Marines during WW II – a form of PTSD that made him talk incessantly. That was struggle enough for me to endure, but the harder part was his frequent need to point out to me all that I was doing wrong and could be doing better. At the time, I was co-founder of a very successful manufacturing business and attending UCLA as an undergrad – all without any encouragement or support from him, thank you. For some reason, I was frequently physically sick during and after his visits – sore throats, stomach aches, headaches …

Making Wrong Right

I characterize my father as a Make-Wrong Person and not surprisingly I occasionally meet up with people who remind me of him in my current life. When I do spend time with such people, I pay close attention to how they affect my mind and body. First of all, I notice my breathing often gets very shallow, next my stomach tightens and I get very still. A kind of hypervigilance takes hold. It’s like I’m steeling myself for the next “assault.” This kind of automatic reaction it turns out, is all part of a Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenaline (HPA) axis stress response. My father’s way of interacting with me – unwittingly, of course – effortlessly managed to turn protective allostasis into damaging allostatic load.

Right Speaking

Seattle of Hospice director, Rodney Smith, writing in one of my favorite books, Lessons From the Dying, speaks to the power of speech to affect neurophysiology. He suggests using the things we say to others as the object of contemplative practice, and offers up Socrates’ Triple Filter for “right speaking” as a useful guide. Socrates suggested that before we go about correcting people, or gossiping about them, or making them wrong, we consider the following: Is what we’re about to say … good? This is not some kind of pollyanna-ish directive to simply always accentuate the positive, particularly when applied in conjunction with the second filter: Is what we’re about to say … true?  Finally, and this is one of my own particular challenges: is what we’re about to say … useful? If what we’re about to say is not good, true or useful, perhaps we might want to explore what our motivation is for saying it.

Prosodic Elegance

One of the things I would add to Rodney’s and Socrates’ guidance is a fourth consideration: does what we’re about to say have Prosodic Elegance? Prosody has to do with how the rhythm, tone and syllable stress of language convey feelings. Gregory Bateson identified it as part of the deep structure of language and it’s what our right brain responds to in communications more than the words themselves. Prosody has also been shown to powerfully affect neurophysiology, especially in young children. UCLA developmental psychiatrist, Allan Schore has written extensively on the role of prosody in brain development. Unknown to most of us, we emerge from the womb finely attuned to prosodic elements or our mother’s speech, which has played a significant role in our early neural development (it’s not an accident that hearing is the first sense to develop, and the last to go). Prosodic Elegance then, is the conscious ability to use our voice and speech to achieve the outcomes we most desire. In martial arts, the voice is often used loudly and forcefully to thwart an attack. In plays and poetry readings, the voice is used to move the listener emotionally.

Considering this evidence, were my father alive today, I would hope to have the awareness and ability to take him aside and in the most gentle voice I could manage, simply tell him that I understand he did the best he could given what life delivered to him. And that I love him, and I forgive him. But if he wants to spend time with me, he’ll have to curb his advice-giving, chatterboxing and criticism. That’s my bottom-line Triple Truth.

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