Talk to animals? Study shows some human understanding of creature sounds

It may not be animal communication in the Dr. Dolittle way, but researchers have found that humans are able to glean information about the feelings of creatures such as pigs, horses, and goats based on their vocalizations.

The team says the findings suggest that certain information contained in sounds, such as the intensity of an animal’s emotions, appears to be transmitted in the same way across species.

“[People] probably base their decisions on their knowledge of how humans sound when more or less aroused…because arousal, which is linked to stress pathways, is a well-conserved system in vertebrates,” said the Dr Elodie Briefer, co-author of the research from the University of Copenhagen.

They also investigated whether people could tell whether an animal was expressing a positive or negative emotion.

“We can’t really trust what we know about humans because it varies so much from species to species – there are many differences in how species express their emotions, even those that are closely related” , Briefer said.

Writing in the journal Royal Society Open Science, Briefer and his colleagues report how they recorded the vocalizations of six animal species – horses, pigs, goats, cattle, Przewalski’s horses (wild horses) and wild boars. The team noted whether the sound was emitted when the animal was excited – as determined by an elevated heart rate or movement – and whether the sound was emitted in a positive context, such as anticipation of food, or in a negative context, such as isolation.

For humans, the team used existing recordings of strings of meaningless words spoken in rage or fear to represent higher and lower emotional intensity – or excitement – ​​respectively, and in angry or joyful ways to suggest context. negative or positive.

The researchers then asked 1,024 participants from 48 countries to each listen to pairs of sounds online.

For each species, participants performed four pairs of vocalizations. For two pairs, they were asked to rate the emotional intensity of the sound as high or low, while for the other two pairs, they were asked to rate the emotion as positive or negative.

The results reveal that, overall, participants correctly rated the subject’s emotional intensity 54.1% of the time and the type of emotion 55.3% of the time.

However, when the team analyzed the data in more detail, they found that participants did better than chance on both measures when assessing the vocalizations of pigs, horses, goats, humans and – for the type of emotion only – boars.

“People are generally better at recognizing domesticated species than wild ones,” Briefer said.

The level of arousal of pigs and horses was rated correctly 59% and 58% of the time, respectively, compared to 55% for humans, while their type of emotion was rated correctly 58% and 64% of the time. respectively, compared to 68% for humans. humans.

“We’re very confident that when it’s higher than chance, it’s definitely higher than chance,” Briefer said, adding that while the odds may have been high for horses because many participants reported contact with such animals, the relatively low success rate for most species, including humans, could be due to both the shortness of the recordings and the use of the same type of sound for each pair of vocalizations – like mooing cows or whinnying horses.

Briefer added that participants’ success in assessing the type of emotions varied much more than their ability to determine the intensity of emotions.

“If we take it to the next level, we can most likely easily train people to recognize sounds,” she said, noting that it could help those who work closely with animals – from farmers to owners. animals – to better understand them.

“In the past, scientists focused on physical health to assess animal welfare. These days, most of us recognize the important role that emotions play.

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