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Why Do People Scream? Screaming Conveys at Least 6 Emotions

Joy and pleasure are two of six distinct "alarm" or "non-alarm" human screams.

Key points

  • There are six distinct screams. Screams of anger, fear, and pain signal alarm. Screams of extreme joy, pleasure, and grief don't signal alarm.
  • Brain imaging suggests that people respond more quickly and accurately to non-alarm screams.
  • Non-alarm screams may have evolved to signal emotional significance to others.
mivod/Shutterstock
Source: mivod/Shutterstock

Fans screamed when Elvis Presley gyrated his hips to "Hound Dog" in 1956. In the mid-1960s, when Beatlemania became a cultural phenomenon, ecstatic fans screamed at the top of their lungs whenever The Beatles dared to make a public appearance.

During their first appearance on American television in 1964, most audience members in Ed Sullivan's theater are shown screaming uncontrollably while watching John, Paul, Ringo, and George sing "I Want to Hold Your Hand." Madonna had the same effect on wannabes in the '80s when she sang her chart-topping hits on "The Virgin Tour." Why do exuberant music fans scream while watching their music idols performing live in concert?

New research ( Frühholz et al., 2021 ) from the University of Zurich suggests that humans evolved with the unique ability to use positive, non-SOS scream calls to "signal the affective significance of events" to others. These peer-reviewed findings were published on April 13 in the journal PLOS Biology.

Although this study doesn't specifically investigate screaming music fans, the Swiss researchers conducted a series of laboratory experiments in humans that identify the existence of at least six different psycho-acoustically distinctive positive and negative scream calls that are either "alarming" or "non-alarming" in nature.

Screams of Pleasure and Joy Are Uniquely Human

"Instead of scream calls being of a uniform acoustic and communication nature, related to threat and alarm signaling based on fear, we found several distinctive scream categories of alarming, non-alarming, and even positive nature in human primates," the authors explain.

"Humans share with other species the potential to signal danger when screaming, but it seems like only humans scream to signal also positive emotions like extreme joy and pleasure," first author Sascha Frühholz said in an April 13 news release . "Signaling and perceiving these positive emotions in screams seemed to have gained priority in humans over alarm signaling. This change in priority might be likely due to the requirements of evolved and complex social contexts in humans."

3 Alarm Screams and 3 Non-Alarm Screams

  1. Anger/Rage (alarm screams)
  2. Fear (alarm scream)
  3. Pain (alarm scream)
  4. Extreme Joy (positive non-alarm scream)
  5. Intense Pleasure (positive non-alarm scream)
  6. Grief/Sadness (desperate non-alarm cries)

Interestingly, the researchers found that when listeners heard each of the six different types of screams inside an fMRI, neuroimaging showed that they "responded more quickly and accurately, and with higher neural sensitivity, to non-alarm and positive scream calls than to alarming screams." As the authors explain:

"While alarm screams (pain, anger, fear) mainly elicited lower neural activity in many inferior frontal and high-level auditory cortex regions, non-alarm screams (pleasure, sadness, joy) compared with neutral vocalizations showed higher and extended auditory cortical activations, especially in the right hemisphere in the low- and high-level auditory cortex. This pattern of neural activity is enhanced when the perceived valence of the screams is taken into account. When we compared neural activity for alarming screams with that of non-alarming screams (Fig 3E), the non-alarming screams revealed extensive higher activity that was largely extended over the auditory and inferior frontal cortex."

Why Non-Alarm Screams Trigger a More Robust Brain Response

Why do these screams involve more neurocognitive processing efficiency than alarm screams? The researchers speculate that human listeners may tend to respond more quickly, accurately, and with higher neural sensitivity to non-alarm and positive scream calls because these screams "seem to have a higher relevance in human sociobiological interactions."

The latest scream research suggests that the communicative nature of human scream calls is more diverse than previously assumed. In particular, positive non-alarm screams used to express intense pleasure or extreme joy seem to be perceived and processed more efficiently in the human brain than alarming "SOS" screams.

"The results of our study are surprising in the sense that researchers usually assume the primate and human cognitive system to be specifically tuned to detect signals of danger and threat in the environment as a mechanism of survival," Frühholz concludes. "This has long been supposed to be the primary purpose of communicative signaling in screams. While this seems true for scream communication in primates and other animal species, scream communication seemed to have largely diversified in humans, and this represents a major evolutionary step."

Facebook image: Vadym Pastukh/Shutterstock

References

Sascha Frühholz, Joris Dietziker, Matthias Staib, Wiebke Trost. "Neurocognitive Processing Efficiency for Discriminating Human Non-Alarm Rather Than Alarm Scream Calls." PLoS Biology (First published: April 13, 2021) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3000751

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