Hearing a sexually-suggestive double entendre such as “she inspected his package” triggers a unique pattern of brain activity, according to new research published in the journal Biological Psychology. The findings provide new insights into how speech prosody can guide the interpretation of an ambiguous statement and how such statements are processed in the brain.
“We are interested in how speech prosody, i.e. the tone of the voice you use when you speak, conveys very important social information touching your identity, your mental and affective states,” said study author Simon Rigoulot, a professor at the University of Quebec who conducted the research in collaboration with McGill University’s Neuropragmatics and Emotion Lab (the Pell Lab).
“When you speak with someone, the message itself has a meaning, but you can also use other types of information which will help you to understand what the speaker wants to say, be it his posture or his tone of voice.”
“In a series of experiments, we were more specifically interested in how the speech prosody can ‘twist’ the meaning of a sentence, like in ironical sentences,” Rigoulot said. “For example, we could say ‘how great this person is’ in an ironic tone of voice, with the intention to convey the actual complete opposite message of the literal one, i.e., that the person we are seeing is in fact not great at all.”
In previous research, Rigoulot and his colleagues found that compliments were associated with different brain responses depending on whether they were uttered in sincere or insincere tones. But the researchers wanted to learn more about how prosody impacted other types of statements “and thought that sexual innuendos were a very promising material for this.”
“Indeed, sexual innuendos can be used with a very specific tone of voice, usually with the purpose of hiding your real intention — suggesting sexual intercourse to someone,” Rigoulot explained.
Using electroencephalography (EEG), the researchers recorded the electrical brain activity of 24 young adults as they listened to statements that were unambiguous (such as “She inspected his letter this morning”) or which contained an ambiguous sexual interpretation (such as “He handled her melons carefully”). In addition, the statements were either uttered in a neutral tone or in a sexually suggestive tone.
An analysis of the audio statements themselves revealed that sexually suggestive utterances were produced more slowly, with a slower voice pitch, and with the ambiguous double entendre word elongated. In addition, the researchers found that listening to the sexual innuendos was associated with unique and heightened brain responses.
“When you speak with someone and this person uses a sexual innuendo, we found that the brain very quickly integrates what is said (the semantic/linguistic information) with how it is said (the prosody or the tone of voice). This integration serves the full understanding of the message delivered by the speaker and its real intentions,” Rigoulot told PsyPost.
“Moreover, we also found a specific response of the brain to these sexual innuendos, suggesting that there is a distinct processing for this type of language. This is, in our opinion, consistent with the idea that innuendos have a very high social relevance (sexual content and taboo information). Altogether, this study is unique and contributes greatly to the understanding of how prosodic information is used during sentence processing.”
But the study — like all research — includes some caveats.
“This work was the very first to study the brain correlates of the processing of sexual innuendos. There is still a lot to do, especially considering the neurocognitive processes triggered by these sentences. For example, the specific stronger responses we found prove that the brain is mobilizing energy to process sexual innuendos,” Rigoulot explained.
“We believe this is linked to their saliency, or their high social relevance, and it must be associated with other outcomes, such as improved memory, heightened attention…but it is still to be proved. In terms of caveat, I would like to improve the number and the variability of the material/sentences we used.”
Despite the limitations, the findings shed light on the neurocognitive mechanisms associated with speech comprehension.
“The role of speech prosody in social communication is fascinating, and in my lab and in Dr. Pell’s lab, we are dedicated to the study of how we use different tones of voice as a function of our goals, and of our mental and affective states. We are studying the acoustic quality of confident, ironic and other types of voices we use when we communicate with others and we are investigating how the brain picks up these differences,” Rigoulot added.
“These processes are also linked to important social behaviors, some of them being implicit, as it seems, for example, easier to trust someone who says something in a confident way, independently of the real status of what is said (true or false).”
The study, “Neurophysiological correlates of sexually evocative speech“, was authored by Simon Rigoulot, Xiaoming Jiang, Nikos Vergis, and Marc D. Pell.