Apr 17, 2021 - Science

Human screams can signal far more than just fear, researchers say

Edvard Munch's The Scream.
So, Edvard Munch, is it pain, anger, fear, pleasure, sadness or joy? Photo: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Human screams can signal more than just fear — and we're actually more alert to positive screams than alarming ones, researchers have found.

Why it matters: The fact that a simple scream can connote such a variety of emotions shows the complexity of nonverbal human communication and may indicate we're more alert to joy than terror.

How it works: In a study published this week, researchers asked 12 subjects to vocalize positive and negative screams, while another group rated the emotional nature of the screams.

  • The second group also had their brains scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging machines (fMRI) while listening.

Details: The researchers identified six "psycho-acoustically" distinct screams: pain, anger, fear, pleasure, sadness and joy.

  • The listening group responded more quickly to the positive screams, which provoked more activity across frontal and auditory brain regions as indicated in the fMRI scans.

Of note: The emotional diversity of human screams is unusual — other primates and mammalian species scream but almost exclusively as an alarm signal, like when vervet monkeys scream to warn others of a threat.

The bottom line: As someone who was a high school senior in 1997, I recognize one Scream and one Scream only.

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