Universiteit Leiden

nl en

Research project

Does the human brain process angry voices automatically?

Using brain imaging to discover the area in the brain that recognizes emotion.

2023 - 2024
Jurriaan Witteman

In neurolinguistics, brain imaging is used to discover what networks in the human brain are involved in language processing. Through our voice, we can express emotions by changing inter alia the volume and pitch of the utterance. For instance, we could say ‘go away!’ in an angry voice, to express anger. An angry voice can be considered a threatening signal. Based on Darwin’s theory of evolution, it has been suggested that dedicated circuitry in the brain has evolved that allows for the rapid detection of threat, promoting an adaptive response and ultimately promoting survival. Therefore, it has been theorized that the network of brain areas that makes such rapid detection of threat possible, has evolved to process threat cues ‘automatically’. That is, even when we do not pay attention to threatening information, the network continues to process the information  to make a rapid response possible.

Figure 1. Results from Grandjean et al. (2005) suggest that the area that the arrow is pointing at is involved in ‘automatic’ anger detection.

Grandjean et al. (2005) performed an influential fMRI study to test this hypothesis. They presented 15 participants with angry or neutral voices, either to the left or the right ear, while their brain activity was measured using fMRI. The participants’ task was to decide whether the speaker was male or female, and hence the participants were not cued to draw specific attention to the emotional character of the voices. The authors found that the area indicated with the arrow in the figure below is more active in the participants’ brains for angry voices than for neutral voices even when participants do not pay attention to the emotional voices. The result is not only important as a corroboration of neurolinguistic models of prosody perception but could also have clinical implications for disorders where automatic processing of emotional voices is assumed to be disturbed, such as in autism spectrum disorders.

In recent years, studies investigating the reliability of neuroimaging have suggested that many neuroimaging findings are unreliable (e.g., Turner et al., 2018). The only way to find out, is by performing a so called ‘close replication study’ where an influential study is repeated as precisely as possible, to test to what extent the original finding can be replicated. In the present study, we will closely replicate the neuroimaging study of Grandjean et al. (2005) to test whether the influential results can be replicated. Furthermore, we will perform more stringent tests of the hypothesis that angry voices are indeed automatically processed in the human brain.


Grandjean, D., Sander, D., Pourtois, G., Schwartz, S., Seghier, M. L., Scherer, K. R., & Vuilleumier, P. (2005). The voices of wrath: Brain responses to angry prosody in meaningless speech. Nature Neuroscience, 8(2), 145–146.

Turner, B. O., Paul, E. J., Miller, M. B., & Barbey, A. K. (2018). Small sample sizes reduce the replicability of task-based fMRI studies. Communications Biology, 1(1), 62.

This website uses cookies.  More information.