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July 15, 2001 - Ear for Emotion? - 2002-01-30

AA: Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears ... just the left ones will do! This is Avi Arditti. Rosanne Skirble is away. This week on Wordmaster, you'll hear from a researcher who says humans just might have an ear for emotional words.

Teow-Chong Sim is a psychology professor at Sam Houston State University in Texas. He led a study of sixty-two people. They had to recall words played for them in pairs -- one word in each pair emotional, the other non-emotional. For instance: "depressed" and "entered," "anxious" and "molar," "crazy" and "cigar." Other pairs included "loving," "vacant"; "sexy," "moving"; "terror," "orange." But here's the twist: this is what it sounded like.

TAPE: CUT ONE -- (sound tracks mixed)

AA: Actually, through headphones, the people heard the emotional word in one ear and the non-emotional word in the other ear at the same time. They recalled an average of fifty-eight percent of the emotional words they heard on the right. Yet they recalled close to sixty-five percent of the emotional words they heard on the left.

Professor Sim says the difference has to do with the brain and how it takes in verbal messages. The left side sorts out the words; the right side deals with emotional stimuli. When both ears receive different signals at the same time, he says, the signals that go to the opposite side of the brain are stronger than the ones that travel to the same side. Typically the signal strength is balanced.

So is there a reason to favor a person's left ear to get an emotional message across to the right side of the brain?


SIM: "How often do you just hear with just one ear? And how often does one actually hear signals that are exclusive to one ear?"

AA: "That's true. In a practical sense, I suppose, if you're going to get up close to your spouse, your girlfriend, your boyfriend, and you want to convey some emotional thoughts, would it be wise to kind of slyly get around to the left side and whisper -- as they're listening to music in the right ear or something, listening to the television or the radio -- then whisper these emotional words into the left ear?"

SIM: "If I wanted to do that, I would make sure that there are no other kinds of distractions in the environment, so that I could have the complete, totally undivided attention of my loved one."

AA: "What do you see as the significance of your study?"

SIM: " In the experiment what we are able to demonstrate is that there is this added responsibility of the right hemisphere when it comes to processing any kind of emotional stimulus, in this case words or verbal kinds of messages being one of them."

AA: "Did you try reversing this, did you try doing the emotional words into the right ear?"

SIM: "In the cases where the emotional words were received on the right, there was a lower level of recall. Subjects weren't able to recall it as accurately as when they were on the left."

AA: "Now which side are you holding the phone up to? I'm curious -- again, we could talk about the implications of this. I mean, does this even affect which side of the head a person holds the phone up to?"

SIM: "No, it shouldn't. When we are engaged in any kind of a normal, verbal interaction, typically however what they have consistently shown is that for any kind of a processing of verbal stimuli, that it is the right ear that will show an advantage. So if you're asking me which one is going to make more sense to me, which one will have a greater impact on me, I would say I should have it on my right ear."

AA: "And what ear do you have it up to?"

SIM: "I have it on my left. (laughter)"

AA: Professor Teow-Chong Sim, on the phone from the Psychology Department at Sam Houston State University in Texas.

Next week VOA's Adam Phillips is here. He'll talk about some truly useful words -- if only we had them in English! And if you have a question about American English, send it to or write to VOA Wordmaster, Washington, D-C, two-zero-two-three-seven U-S-A. That's all for Wordmaster this week. I'm Avi Arditti.

MUSIC: "I Second That Emotion"/Smokey Robinson and the Miracles