The Science behind Holistic Emotive Practices
Holistic Emotive Practices evolved from the intersection of two branches of science, psychology and linguistics, a field known as psycholinguistics. Psychologists break down the physiology of emotions into three systems. Linguistic studies of the physiology of speech identify three main speech articulators. Psycholinguistic studies have identified a connection between these two physiological systems that has revealed that individual speech sounds produce a specific emotional resonance.

In order to understand the connections between emotions and speech sounds you must first have a basic understanding of the physiological dimensions of emotions and a basic understanding of the physiology of speech. On this page I give a broad overview of each of these fields. Following those brief introductions I get to the core of Holistic Emotive Practices - the correspondence between speech sounds and emotions.
The Physiology of Emotions
Science has identified three physiological dimensions of emotions. We have an emotional arousal system based mainly in the brainstem and consisting chiefly of autonomic functions. Emotions also connect to our pleasure regulation system, based primarily in the limbic system located in the mid-brain. The control system of emotions resides, for the most part, in the cortex.

Each of these three physiological sub-systems evolved relatively independently. Additionally, each system is responsible for a particular type of behaviors. The details of evolution, physiology, and behavior are shown in the adjacent table.

Three Dimensions of Emotions
Arousal Pleasure Control
Evolutionary Stage Reptiles Mammals Primates
Physiological Substrate Brainstem: Autonomic system Limbic system Neocortex
Related Behavior Instinctual Learned through reinforcement Self-learned through thinking
Extremes or Poles of Emotion Dimensions
Each of these emotion dimensions has two opposite extremes, sometimes referred to as poles. For the arousal dimension the empty pole is a relaxed feeling, empty of all arousing activity, and the full dimension is an excited feeling. The empty pole of the pleasure dimension is an unpleasant feeling ­ empty because it lacks pleasure, while the full pole is simply a feeling of pleasure. The empty pole of control is lack of control, or the feeling that we are being controlled by an outside force, and the opposite or full aspect of control is the feeling that we are in control.
Poles of Emotion Dimensions
Emotion Dimension Empty Feeling Full Feeling
Arousal Relaxed Excited
Pleasure Unpleasant Pleasant
Control Lack of Control In Control
The Physiology of Speech
Vowel Production      One of the most important concepts concerning speech sounds is the existence of three primary vowel sounds. These three vowels, /â/ as in "father," /û/ as in "moon," and /î/ as in "see," are found in every language. Some languages only have these three vowels.

These three vowels hold the corner positions in a more or less triangular vowel production space for every language. Linguists define vowel production space by the position of the jaw and the relative position of the lips. To produce an /â/ the jaw is lower than it is for any saying any other vowel sound. To produce an /û/ the lips must protrude farther than for any other vowel. The muscle action to do this keeps the jaw drawn up. An /î/ requires the lips to be drawn back and the jaw kept high.

Other vowels such as the /ae/ in "say" and the /o/ in "slow" fit somewhere in the middle of the vowel production space, with the jaw not so low and the lips not so far out or back. For these reasons I consider the /â/, /û/, and /î/ primary vowels and all other vowels secondary or non-primary vowels.
Vowel Production Space
Vowel Perception      The three primary vowels also hold the corner positions in a triangular vowel perception space. Linguist use the first and second formants of vowel sounds to create vowel perception space. Formants are bands of frequencies associated with vowels. When our vocal chords vibrate they produce a number of frequencies. Not all of the frequencies escape the mouth. The mouth blocks some and passes other through. The shape of the mouth determines which frequencies or formants pass through. In essence, the mouth acts like a filter allowing certain frequencies to pass and blocking others. Those frequencies which escape the mouth and are heard come in bands which are called formants. We can identify a vowel sound by its first and second formants.

If you plot the primary vowels in a space defined by first and second formants the three points form a triangle.

When the first and second formants of other vowels are plotted they fall somewhere in the middle of the vowel perception space, just like in vowel production space. This strong correlation between vowel production space and vowel perception space takes place because mouth shape determines both.

Vowel Perception Space

Primary Vowels and Speech Articulators
The primary articulators of speech include the tongue, lips, and jaw. Each primary vowel has a crucial connection to one of these components. The jaw connects with the /â/, since to say the /â/ the jaw assumes a lower position than for any other vowel. The lips pair with the /û/ because of the position of the lips when we utter an /û/. That leaves one major articulator and one primary vowel and gives us our third pairing: the /î/ with the tongue.
Primay Vowels
With Related Articulator
Articulator Vowel Example Word
Jaw /â/ as in Father
Lips /û/ as in moon
Tongue /î/ as in see
Primary Vowel-Consonant Pairs
We form vowels from an open unobstructed vocal tract. We constrict the vocal tract to create consonants. We create the constrictions of the vocal tract with one or more speech articulator. If you constrict the vocal tract from each primary vowel using its associated articulator you arrive at three primary vowel/consonants pairs.

When you raise the jaw from an /â/ you produce an /r/ sound. By closing the lips from an /û/ you create an /m/. Constricting the vocal tract with the tongue from an /î/ position creates more than one consonant, but the one requiring the most control is the /n/.
Primay Vowel-Consonant Pairs
With Related Articulator
Articulator Vowel Consonant(s)
Jaw /â/ /r/
Lips /û/ /m/
Tongue /î/ /n/
Connecting Emotion Dimensions
to Primary Vowel/Consonant Pairs
Now we are ready to make the connection between individual speech sounds and poles of each emotion dimension.

Arousal Dimension     Research has connected an /â/ to feelings of relaxation.  This should make intuitive sense.  Think about how you might react vocally in situations where you get a chance to relax, maybe by slipping into a hot tub, or getting a massage, or maybe just sitting down on a couch to rest after a tiring task.  An ‘ah’ might naturally slip out of your mouth.  When we relax and wish to express our feelings, a simple ‘ah’ works best. My experiments reveal that when subjects hear an /â/ sound it activates concepts stored in memory that connect to relaxation.
Relationships Between Physiology,
Speech Sounds and Emotions
Emotion Dimension Physiological Modulator Feeling Sound
Arousal Jaw Relaxed /â/
Excited /r/
Pleasure Lips Unpleasant /û/
Pleasant /m/
Control Tongue Lack of Control /î/
In Control /n/
What about making an arousing sound? If we want to express agitation or aggression, either intentionally or not, a growling /r/ probably works better than any other sound. My studies show that an /r/ sound activates ideas in memory associated with arousal and excitement.

Other evidence corroborates these conclusions. The frequency spectrum of an /r/ sound consists of lower frequencies than any other sound. People consider a lower pitched voice more dominant than a relatively higher one. Dominance implies activity and arousal, not relaxation.

Pleasure Dimension     converging evidence that points to /m/ as the most pleasant sound and /û/ as the most unpleasant one. In one study where people rated different phonemes on arousal, pleasure and control, the subjects rated the /m/ as the most pleasant sound. In another study, people heard stories that varied in the number of words that contained an /û/ sound. Stories with a high number of /û/ sounds were rated more unpleasant than stories with few /û/ sounds.

In another study people had to vary the shape of their mouth. When the mouth held the lips pursed as they must be for an /û/ sound they rated their activity more unpleasant than when their lips held a position similar to that used for an /î/.   In still another study has found that an /m/ sound activates memories of pleasant things and an /û/ sound activates concepts in memory that hold unpleasant connotations.

We can point to more practical or intuitive evidence for connecting /m/ to pleasantness and /û/ to unpleasantness. What about the Madison Ave advertising slogan for Campbell´s soup, "mm, mm good?" We get the point from the "mm" that is pleasurable.

In many languages the word for mother begins with an /m/. When a baby nurses at mother´s breast the only sound possible is an /m/. On the flip side of that phenomena, what happens when the baby cannot find the breast? Instead of pleasure the child experience want or displeasure with lips pursed and searching in an /û/ shape.

Control Dimension     I have gathered evidence that supports connecting the /î/ to lack of control of emotions, or in other words the /î/ corresponds to a feeling where an external source controls the emotions. In one of my studies different sounds were paired with written words associated with a connotation of lack of control, for example fright, scare, and lost. Recognition of these words were facilitated with an /î/ sound compared to other sounds. Similarly, recognition of words with a connection to a feeling of control, for example strict, rule, and dictate, gets facilitated by an /n/ sound compared to other sounds.

In psychological parlance we say that an /n/ sound primes words associated with control and an /î/ sound primes words related to lack of control. The classical interpretation of such phenomena is that the primes, in this case the individual phonemes, shares neural connections in the brain to the concept that it primed. When a subject hears a prime, activation spread from its representation in the brain to its related concepts, indicating that on a basic biological level we connect an /î/ sound to lack of control and /n/ sounds to control.

Some other evidence supports the connection between /n/ and control and /î/ and lack of control. The /n/ sound in many languages forms part of a word for negative, such as "no" in English. English speakers use this word exert control, for example when you want to control your toddler and the child from doing something.

Some anecdotal evidence supplies the connection between the /î/ and lack of control. Have ever seen videos of people experiencing amusement park thrill rides? You know, the ones that turn you upside down while traveling seventy miles an hour. Invariably in those clips you hear a piercing "eeee" sound. Clearly they are expressing their feelings about the lack of control they feel. Likewise, on several occasions I have heard a similar cry when my wife loses control of her kitchen to a mouse.

Connecting Other Speech Sounds to Dimensions of Emotions
Every speech sound has some connection to emotions and feelings via the physiology involved in producing the sound. When you engage the lips to make a sound, as with the /b/ and /p/ sounds, you impact the pleasure dimension of emotions. The difference in the effect on our feelings of pleasure stems from the manner of articulating the sounds.

We create the sounds /t/, /d/, /ch/, /j/, /k/, /g/, /z/, /s/, /n/, /ng/, and /l/ with the help of the tongue. As a result all of these affect our feelings of control in some way. The various methods of articulation used for these sounds determines the nature of the sounds emotional valence.

You can read a much more detailed explanation of the scientific underpinnings of SMY, including references, in my book: Sufi Mindfulness Yoga.