Human Novelty Response to Emotional Animal Vocalizations: Effects of Phylogeny and Familiarity

Front Behav Neurosci. 2017 Oct 24;11:204. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2017.00204. eCollection 2017.


Darwin (1872) postulated that emotional expressions contain universals that are retained across species. We recently showed that human rating responses were strongly affected by a listener's familiarity with vocalization types, whereas evidence for universal cross-taxa emotion recognition was limited. To disentangle the impact of evolutionarily retained mechanisms (phylogeny) and experience-driven cognitive processes (familiarity), we compared the temporal unfolding of event-related potentials (ERPs) in response to agonistic and affiliative vocalizations expressed by humans and three animal species. Using an auditory oddball novelty paradigm, ERPs were recorded in response to task-irrelevant novel sounds, comprising vocalizations varying in their degree of phylogenetic relationship and familiarity to humans. Vocalizations were recorded in affiliative and agonistic contexts. Offline, participants rated the vocalizations for valence, arousal, and familiarity. Correlation analyses revealed a significant correlation between a posteriorly distributed early negativity and arousal ratings. More specifically, a contextual category effect of this negativity was observed for human infant and chimpanzee vocalizations but absent for other species vocalizations. Further, a significant correlation between the later and more posteriorly P3a and P3b responses and familiarity ratings indicates a link between familiarity and attentional processing. A contextual category effect of the P3b was observed for the less familiar chimpanzee and tree shrew vocalizations. Taken together, these findings suggest that early negative ERP responses to agonistic and affiliative vocalizations may be influenced by evolutionary retained mechanisms, whereas the later orienting of attention (positive ERPs) may mainly be modulated by the prior experience.

Keywords: auditory ERP; emotion processing; novelty oddball; phylogeny; sound familiarity; voice.