Sweet Nothings Can Lose Something in Translation

Emotional words are best remembered through the left ear, and likely to be forgetten through the right, says study

MONDAY, July 9, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- The next time you're reciting love sonnets into your sweetie's ear, make sure you're on her left -- that way she'll remember what you're saying, says new research.

Emotional words like "love," "crazy" or "thoughtful" are remembered best when heard through the left ear, where they are directed to the right side of the brain, according to a study presented last week at the European Congress of Psychology in London.

If you choose to woo your mate with words whispered in the right ear, say the American researchers, your carefully chosen compliments are more likely to be forgotten.

The study was presented by lead investigator Teow-Chong Sim, an assistant professor of psychology at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.

"It's been established that the right hemisphere processes much more non-verbal kinds of tasks, including visual-spatial tasks, music, and processing of emotional stimulation," says Sim. But his team wondered whether hearing verbal messages in the left or right ear made any difference, since each hemisphere of the brain is generally responsible for the opposite side of the body.

Sim and his colleagues enlisted the aid of 62 right-handed male and female volunteers. Using headphones, each person listened to eight sets of six to eight word pairs, with one word being heard in one ear as the other was broadcast to the other ear. The words in each pair had the same number of syllables and were timed to start and stop at exactly the same time.

The word-pairs were random combinations of emotional words paired with non-emotional words: "joyful," "careful" and "sexy" were paired, for example, with such words as "sidewalk," "cigar" and "trophy."

Afterwards, the volunteers worked on simple addition or subtraction "distracter" problems to ensure that they didn't mentally rehearse what they had just heard. Then they were asked to recall as many words as possible.

Sim found that the volunteers could remember 64 percent of the emotional words that they heard in their left ear and only 57 percent, on average, of the emotional words heard in their right ear.

On the other hand, only 52.8 recalled the non-emotional words heard through their left ear, while 58 percent recalled non-emotional words heard through their right ear.

The team speculated that the difference is because right-handed people's right brain controls the left ear and is also responsible for processing emotions.

Sim found no significant differences between how men and women performed in the study.

Still, Elizabeth Phelps, an associate professor of psychology at New York University who studies emotion and memory, stresses that the emotion is not exclusive to the right half of the brain.

"For some things, the right hemisphere is a little more responsive," Phelps says. "People who have damage to their right hemisphere are more likely to have problems with emotional expression [and] perception."

But, she cautions, it's not universal. While the right half of the brain tends to be dominant when it comes to emotion, Phelps says that some evidence points to some left hemisphere involvement in emotional processing. "It's not like the right hemisphere does emotion."

So what does Sim think about his study and sweet nothings? He says that this study was only intended as basic research, and the team was very amused by the romantic suggestions that have been made about their findings. "I'll put it to the test," says Sim.

As to a potential clinical use for the findings, Sim speculates that for stroke patients who have suffered damage to their left hemisphere, there is a possibility that words of encouragement, comfort and affect might register more strongly if whispered into the left ear.

But, he points out, "under normal circumstances, when we receive any kind of auditory stimulation -- whether verbal or non-verbal -- we actually receive it through both ears," says Sim. "So there's always the integration of the signals."

What To Do

This article taken from the Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology provides information on the right hemisphere of the brain.

A past study by researchers at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke looks at the effects of brain damage on emotions, while this article from ScienceDaily describes a part of the brain's right hemisphere that processes emotions.

SOURCES: Interviews with Teow-Chong Sim, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Psychology, Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas; Elizabeth A. Phelps, Ph.D., associate professor and laboratory director, Department of Psychology, New York University, New York, N.Y.; abstract from 7th annual European Congress of Psychology, London, U.K.
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