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Emotion and empathy: how voice can save the culture.

I BEGAN WRITING THIS COLUMN in early November of 2016, with less than a week to go before the elections in the United States of America. When it was finished, the election was over and had culminated in a victory that was shocking to foes and supporters alike. By the time this article sees print, this horrid election season will be well behind us and our new president will have been sworn in to office; but the toxic seeds of division that were sown in these not-so-united states will, I fear, remain. Whether those seeds are nurtured to fruition or allowed to wither will depend upon the actions of each and every citizen. High degrees of emotion (anger, frustration, mistrust) were unleashed during the 2016 campaign season, leading to protests that featured both acts of civil disobedience and outright lawless behavior. Those in positions of power must enforce our laws, but reinforcing commonly held beliefs about justice and human decency is the mandate of every citizen. Such a mandate will always find common cause with the pursuit of art and beauty.

This installment of "Mindful Voice" is about the twin pillars of emotion (currently on full display in every arena of American life) and empathy (currently in short supply). This article is not about "feeling," but about the neural substrates of emotion that are entwined with our ability to reason and to empathize with others.


Recently, I was asked to give a talk on the topic of emotion and its relation to voice. As apparent as this pairing may seem, emotion itself is a vast and daunting research topic, as well as an age-old conundrum; emotion has bedeviled human beings for as long as we have been sentient.

Aristotle's (384-322 BCE) term for emotions was pathe (plural), variously translated as "desires" or "appetites." (1) During the 17th century, Rene Descartes recognized the physiologic upheavals generated by the "passions of the soul" and attributed this "agitation" to the pineal gland in the brain, which he believed to be home base for the human soul. (2)

Eighteenth century beliefs about emotion, particularly as influenced by romantic thought, saw emotion as "a kind of excess, something housed in our nature, aching for expression," an idea that persisted throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, and is still present today. (3)

In the early 20th century, emotion experienced a kind of banishment at the hands of behaviorist psychologists, first spearheaded by John B. Watson's 1913 dictum, "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It," which eschewed the products of the mind (especially emotion) as too frivolous for serious scientific study. Behaviorist psychologists endeavored to join psychology to the ranks of the hard sciences by transforming the field from its Freudian preoccupation with interior mental states, to a discipline strictly confined to considering observable behavior.

With the advent of the so-called "cognitive revolution" in the late 1950s, behaviorism came "to be labeled by its opponents as a narrow, rigid, dogmatic and authoritarian system." (4) Despite this, behaviorism still reigned as the dominant school of psychology in America for most of the 20th century, and behaviorist principles, particularly tenets of "operant conditioning," were enthusiastically applied to controlling group behavior in settings like prisons, factories, and classrooms.

The pioneers of cognitive science chipped away at behaviorism, and eventually displaced it by ushering in the current era of brain science; but those pioneers had as much interest in emotion as their predecessors, which is to say, almost none. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has ascribed the omission of emotion at the time as nothing more than plain geekiness. "These were nerdy guys interested in the nerdy aspects of cognition," he explains. "It's not that our emotions aren't interesting topics of study, but these weren't the topics that they were interested in." (5)

Throughout most of the 20th century, rational thought was exalted as the pinnacle of human wisdom, while emotion was not only deemed worthless as a serious research topic, it was considered downright seditious: emotion bewitched and muddled rational thought. Emotion is still viewed as an element that one must tame, silence, or outgrow. Yet the very newest research on emotion from the field of neuroscience reveals that emotion, rather than being frivolous, is fundamentally entwined with human reason, and as such, is an indispensable component of human life.


Acclaimed neuroscientist Antonio Damasio led the charge to rescue emotion from its century-long exile, and breeched the wall of rationality that had girded scientific research through most of the 20th century. Damasio recalled the state of the field when he and his research partner first set out to seriously study emotion.

People were extremely negative, and we're talking about late '80s,
early '90s, and people said, "Why on earth are you doing this?
Everybody knows [that] what needs to be known about emotion has been
done. Everybody knows . . . You're going off the deep end." (6)

Damasio's work persisted, and his research coalesced into his 1995 landmark paper, "Somatic Marker Hypothesis," which proposed emotion as a central component in human decision making. Far from a hero's welcome, however, Damasio recalled the mixture of consternation and utter disdain that greeted his theory.

I remember actually presenting my first paper on somatic marker
hypothesis at the Society of Neuroscience, and there was one person in
the first row that just shook his head and said, "How can this poor guy
be so wrong?" You know, "Why is he doing this?" (7)

Yet the naysayers are now the "poor guys" who are "so wrong," for emotion, as Damasio notes, is at present "a huge field in neuroscience, and everybody talks about it." (8)

Along with Damasio, neuroscientists such as Joseph LeDoux have worked to repair the mind-body split proposed by Descartes by plucking emotion from the ephemeral realm of the spirit and grounding it within the physical functions of the body. Damasio aptly named his popular book about Somatic Marker Hypothesis Descartes' Error. (9) Emotions, as defined by LeDoux, are solidly defined as "biological functions of the nervous system." (10)


A three volume set of research essays was published in 2008 devoted to the topic of emotion and voice, yet very few involve the singing voice. (11) In a recent science paper on this topic, researchers noted,

[T]he central instrument to evoke the subtle shadings of emotion is the
human voice [and while] the emotional power of the singing voice [has
been] frequently acknowledged, [it] has only rarely been studied in an
experimental fashion. (12)

While this is certainly true, the results in the few studies that do exist are neither earthshaking nor particularly revelatory for singers. For example, strong emotions, such as elation or anger, generally evince more volume in the sound and are expressed via faster tempi; conversely, sadness is expressed through quiet dynamics and slower tempi. In one study that paired professional singers and actors, the researchers noted that the singers "privilege[d] vibrato as a mechanism of choice" for expressing "high arousal emotions." The researchers speculate that singers do this more than actors, "due to the constraints of musical structure and composition" that give singers fewer choices than speakers. (13)

In the end, the researchers in this study noted "a number of limitations" that attend the examination of voice and emotion.

[T]he duration of approx. 8 s for a voice sample is too short to expect
a high degree of spectral stabilization, especially for the parameters
based on the long-term spectrum. At the same time, it is difficult to
see how this limitation can be overcome given the ecological
constraints--emotions are short-lived episodes and strong expressions
in voice and face often occur only at the apex of emotional
arousal. (14)

They concluded (as most studies do) that more research is needed. Or is it? Are more studies tracking vocal perturbation as tools of vocal expression needed? Ultimately, do we really need science to tell us that voice has the power to induce emotion?

Let us just suppose that we know, through lived experience, that this is so: The human voice has the power to induce emotion in the listener. This assumption leads to the question: Is emotion important? The work of Damasio, LeDoux, and others states emphatically, yes. Emotion can no longer be considered a separate or lesser brain function, nor a distraction to reason. Indeed, Damasio's hypothesis was initially inspired by studying people with significant brain damage in the reasoning areas of the brain. Because these people could attach no significance to their decisions, could not privilege one choice above another, they were forever stuck in a pathological fog of indecision.

After studying those patients in great detail, we could not explain
their failures of decision making and their completely disrupted social
life in terms of impaired intellect, impaired language, [or] impaired
memory... something else needed to figure into the explanation, and
that "something else" offered itself very clearly to us: [it] had to do
with emotion. (15)

I suspect that artists have honored the importance of emotion for as long as there have been artists, despite the mutability of human culture, which, as literary critic Edmund Wilson noted, periodically experiences a "perennial swing of the pendulum away from a mechanistic view of nature" toward something more passionate--and back yet again. (16) It appears that after almost a century of rationalism, we are collectively living a more passionate life--albeit one that was paradoxically ushered in by science, and one that underscores the hard reality that not all experienced emotion is benign, positive, or even healthy.

In any case, let us agree that this much about emotion is resolved: Voice has the power to induce emotion, and emotion is a vital component of human existence. The power of emotion has been recognized for as long as modern humans have existed. More recently, emotion has been recognized for its role in reason; as a case in point, emotions such as exasperation and fear certainly played a critical role by influencing decisions as we Americans voted in our recent election.

Yet emotion is also the basis of empathy. Empathy may be defined simply as the ability to feel the experience of others separate from oneself. Evolutionary psychologists tout empathy as one of the most critical of human traits that has persisted throughout human evolution. Empathy is one powerful explanation for why we are all still here; how else might we explain why we did not wipe each other out by now? As such, empathy is nothing less than a cornerstone of a civilized society. And those components--civilization, society--must be vigilantly safeguarded. Are those components currently endangered? Let us first consider empathy.


The "pro-social consequences of high empathy" are acknowledged in social psychology by measures such as higher levels of giving among high empathy people of both time (volunteer work, for example) and money (philanthropic financial giving). Further, traits that society purports to value (such as honesty, compassion, and selflessness) are shown to be proportional to empathy. (17) Empathy, researchers note, "enable[s] people to relate to others in a way that promotes cooperation and unity, rather than conflict and isolation." (18) As such, we must reassert empathy as a cornerstone of a healthy society.

Is empathy endangered? A sharp drop in a measure of "empathic concern" among college students caught the attention of social psychologist Sherry Turkle, well known for her work on the societal effects of digital media. (19) Turkle notes that "our technologies have not only changed what we do; they have changed who we are. And nowhere as profoundly as in our capacity for empathy." (20) Turkle notes that true empathy "begins with the realization that you don't know how another feels. In that ignorance, you begin with an offer of conversation: 'Tell me how you feel'." (21)

In her latest work, Turkle makes a passionate case for face-to-face conversation as a cure for an "empathy deficit" for which she faults our "enchantment" with digital communication, most specifically, with texting, which has replaced vocal communication. (It is interesting to note, however, that in the index to Turkle's assiduously researched and footnoted work, the work "voice" does not appear once.) Still, if Turkle is correct that we are collectively suffering from an "empathy deficit," what else, besides conversation, can cure it?

Art Engagement

Engaging with art, both as receiver and doer, instills empathy. In a recent profile of intellectual titan Martha Nussbaum, her interviewer, Rachel Aviv, noted that Nussbaum's work has led her to recognize the critical role that emotion plays in the collective good.

For a society to remain stable and committed to democratic principles,
[Nussbaum has] argued, it needs more than detached moral principles: it
has to cultivate certain emotions and teach people to enter
empathetically into others' lives. She believes that the humanities are
not just important to a healthy democratic society but decisive,
shaping its fate. She proposed an enhanced version of John Stuart
Mill's "aesthetic education"--emotional refinement for all citizens

through poetry and music and art. (22)

Aviv recounts that in setting up Nussbaum's interview, the subject expressed concern that Aviv would be able to capture her essence, given her long and varied career.

[Nussbaum is] a sixty-nine-year-old professor of law and philosophy at
the University of Chicago (with appointments in classics, political
science, Southern Asian studies, and the divinity school), [who] has
published twenty-four books and five hundred and nine papers, and
received fifty-seven honorary degrees... She wasn't sure how I could
encompass her oeuvre, since it covered so many subjects: animal rights,
emotions in criminal law, Indian politics, disability, religious
intolerance, political liberalism, the role of humanities in the
academy, sexual harassment, transnational transfers of wealth... (23)

Among Nussbaum's many accomplishments and pursuits, it turns out that singing is one of her most cherished.

For our first meeting, she suggested that I watch her sing: "It's the
actual singing that would give you insight into my personality and my
emotional life, though of course I am very imperfect in my ability to
express what I want to express." She wrote that music allowed her to
access a part of her personality that is "less defended, more
receptive." (24)

Aviv accompanied Nussbaum to her weekly voice lesson, where she coached "Or sai chi l'onore," from Mozart's Don Giovanni, and "Tu che le vanita," from Verdi's Don Carlo. It is clear from the remainder of the article that this experience gave Aviv as interviewer a privileged insight into the character of this complex and intriguing person who has used solo music as a private "life-affirming activity" while publicly "calling for a society of citizens who admit that they are needy and vulnerable." (25)

"Emotion is Not a Luxury"

Voice--both singing and speaking--has the power to induce emotion. Why should we care about emotion? As neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has stated, "emotion is not a luxury," in part because emotion assists reason.26 Yet emotion is also the basis of empathy, and empathy is a cornerstone of a civilized society. In these fractious times, empathy (that is, seeing the world--hopefully charitably--through the experience of others) is in frighteningly short supply. Engaging with art is one way in which empathy is inculcated.

In this spirit, I urge this journal's readers, singers, and NATS members to join the public Facebook group called "Singing For a New World." Its founder, John Nix describes its purpose:

The purpose of this group is to provide a forum for ideas which can
foster more singing by more people in the Americas. It is a campaign I
am starting in collaboration with NATS, NYSTA, ACDA, PAVA, and other
singing voice organizations in the US and other countries in the
Western Hemisphere. Another purpose of this Facebook group is to
provide a social media site where people can share videos of
performances where audience members are invited to join in the
singing--be it encores of a recital, a flash mob in a mall, a curtain
call of a play, musical, or opera--you name it. (27)

In the next installment of "Mindful Voice," we will consider recent research on the benefits of community singing, and why singing together could be one powerful act toward mending the tears in the fabric of our culture.


(1.) See Amy M. Schmitter, "17th and 18th Century Theories of Emotions," in Edward N. Zalta, ed., The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition); (accessed November 10, 2016).

(2.) See Gert-Jan Lokhorst, "Descartes and the Pineal Gland," in Zalta, ed.; (accessed November 10, 2016).

(3.) Daniel M. Gross, The Secret History of Emotion: From Aristotle's Rhetoric to Modern Brain Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 5.

(4.) Jamie Cohen-Cole, "Instituting the Science of Mind: Intellectual Economies and Disciplinary Exchange at Harvard's Center for Cognitive Studies," British Journal for the History of Science 40, no. 4 (December, 2007): 586.

(5.) Jonah Lehrer, "Hearts & Minds," The Boston Globe, April 29, 2007; (accessed November 10, 2016).

(6.) Antonio Damasio, "A Legacy of Behavioralism in the Neurology of Emotion," interview with Siri Hustvedt for bigthink. com, recorded July 2, 2010; (accessed November 10, 2016).

(7.) Ibid.

(8.) Ibid.

(9.) Antonio Damasio, Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain (New York: G. P. Putnam Sons, 1994).

(10.) Joseph LeDoux, The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 12.

(11.) Krzysztof Izdebski, ed., Emotions in the Human Voice (San Diego: Plural Publishing, 2007).

(12.) Klaus R. Scherera, Johan Sundberg, Lucas Tamarita, and GlA ucia L. SalomA[pounds sterling]ob, "Comparing the Acoustic Expression of Emotion in the Speaking and the Singing Voice," Computer Speech & Language 29, no 1 (January, 2015): 219.

(13.) Ibid., 233.

(14.) Ibid.

(15.) Damasio, "A Legacy of Behavioralism. . ."

(16.) Edmund Wilson, Axel's Castle: A Study In The Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1931; renewal copyright, 1959), 17.

(17.) See Mark H. Davis, "The Effects of Dispositional Empathy on Emotional Reactions and Helping: A Multidimensional Approach," Journal of Personality 51, no. 2 (June 1983): 167-184; "Empathic Concern and the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon: Empathy as a Multidimensional Construct," Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 9, no. 2 (June 1983): 223-229; and "Measuring Individual Differences In Empathy: Evidence For a Multidimensional Approach," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 44, no. 1 (June 1983): 113-126.

(18.) Sara H. Konrath, Edward H. O'Brien, and Courtney Hsing, "Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-Analysis," Personality and Social Psychology Review 15, no. 2 (May 2011 15): 180.

(19.) Ibid.

(20.) Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (New York: Penguin, 2015): 172.

(21.) Ibid.

(22.) Rachel Aviv, "The Philosopher of Feelings," The New Yorker Magazine (July 25, 2016); (accessed November 10, 2016).

(23.) Ibid.

(24.) Ibid.

(25.) Ibid.

(26.) Damasio, Descartes' Error, 130.

(27.) Facebook page "Singing for a New World"; (accessed November 10, 2016).

Lynn Helding, Associate Editor
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Title Annotation:Mindful Voice
Author:Helding, Lynn
Publication:Journal of Singing
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2017
Previous Article:The value of performing.
Next Article:The singer's goal.

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