Image Courtesy of SCHI LAB, University of Sussex, © 2015
Image Courtesy of SCHI LAB, University of Sussex, © 2015

You Can Feel Emotion in the Palm of Your Hand

Image Courtesy of SCHI LAB, University of Sussex, © 2015
Image Courtesy of SCHI LAB, University of Sussex, © 2015

It can be hard to fully convey emotion through mere text. Interoffice chats, long-distance texts, and emails occasionally go awry because of misunderstandings about the emotional intent behind a statement. Is that request passive aggressive, or just succinct?

Soon, you might be able to understand how someone far away feels just by reaching out your palm. A group of scientists led by University of Sussex interaction designer Marianna Obrist is testing a system that can stimulate the hand to convey human emotion without any sort of physical contact. In a study using Ultrahaptics, a system that creates tactile sensations in midair using ultrasound, they found that people can recognize different emotional states just from tactile clues on their hands.

To begin the study, researchers showed participants images representing different emotional states, like a nature scene, an image of whitewater rafting, a graveyard, and a car on fire. They asked 10 study subjects to come up with sensations that would communicate those feelings—serenity, happiness, anger, sadness—via the Ultrahaptics machine's ultrasonic waves.

Next, a different group of 10 participants evaluated these “haptic descriptions,” or the touches evoking each feeling, ranking them to determine which sensations invented by the other study subjects fit the stated emotions best. Finally, a third group of 10 people was brought in to try to match the selected haptic descriptions to the appropriate image. 

Overall, the researchers found that this last group was able to successfully match the top-ranked tactile sensations with the images that were supposed to represent those feelings.

Compared to the control image (a clock on the wall), the participants generally matched the correct tactile sensation with the corresponding emotional image. However, they tended to rate touches as equally appropriate for the two high arousal images—represented by white water rafting and a car on fire—indicating that it’s still challenging to distinguish between positive and negative emotions through touch. Yet they were able to distinguish between the different types of emotional arousal of the feelings (whether the feeling intended was calm serenity or excited happiness, for instance) on their hands. And the participants felt very confident that they had read the tactile sensations right. The subjects’ average rating of confidence in their answers was a 5.8 on a scale of one to seven (seven being the most confident).

So what kind of tactile sensations convey certain emotions? “Our findings suggest that for a positive emotion through haptic stimulation one might want to stimulate the area around the thumb, the index finger, and the middle part of the palm,” Obrist and her team write in their paper, presented earlier this week at the CHI 2015 conference on human-computer interaction in Seoul.

On the other hand, to elicit a negative response, it’s better to stimulate the area around the pinky and the outer part of the palm.

Though this initial study was quite small (just 30 people), the research is promising. Similar touch-based systems could eventually be incorporated into wearable technology that would alert you to the emotional states of the people close to you, the researchers write:

Imagine a couple that just had a fight in the morning before going to work. She is sitting in a meeting wearing her bracelet that transmits haptic emotional messages from her partner. When she receives a new stimulus, she pulls out the string from her bracelet and connects it to her ring finger…Her partner created a haptic stimulus using a combination of 16 and 32Hz frequencies with low intensity, so that she realizes he is not angry anymore.

Technology means never having to say you're sorry. Out loud, at least.

[h/t: Eurekalert]

Big Questions
What Is Foreign Accent Syndrome?

One night in 2016, Michelle Myers—an Arizona mom with a history of migraines—went to sleep with a splitting headache. When she awoke, her speech was marked with what sounded like an British accent, despite having never left the U.S. Myers is one of about 100 people worldwide who have been diagnosed with Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), a condition in which people spontaneously speak with a non-native accent.

In most cases, FAS occurs following a head injury or stroke that damages parts of the brain associated with speech. A number of recent incidences of FAS have been well documented: A Tasmanian woman named Leanne Rowe began speaking with a French-sounding accent after recovering from a serious car accident, while Kath Lockett, a British woman, underwent treatment for a brain tumor and ended up speaking with an accent that sounds somewhere between French and Italian.

The first case of the then-unnamed syndrome was reported in 1907 when a Paris-born-and-raised man who suffered a brain hemorrhage woke up speaking with an Alsatian accent. During World War II, neurologist Georg Herman Monrad-Krohn compiled the first comprehensive case study of the syndrome in a Norwegian woman named Astrid L., who had been hit on the head with shrapnel and subsequently spoke with a pronounced German-sounding accent. Monrad-Krohn called her speech disorder dysprosody: her choice of words and sentence construction, and even her singing ability, were all normal, but her intonation, pronunciation, and stress on syllables (known as prosody) had changed.

In a 1982 paper, neurolinguist Harry Whitaker coined the term "foreign accent syndrome" for acquired accent deviation after a brain injury. Based on Monrad-Kohn's and other case studies, Whitaker suggested four criteria for diagnosing FAS [PDF]:

"The accent is considered by the patient, by acquaintances, and by the investigator to sound foreign.
It is unlike the patient’s native dialect before the cerebral insult.
It is clearly related to central nervous system damage (as opposed to a hysteric reaction, if such exist).
There is no evidence in the patient’s background of being a speaker of a foreign language (i.e., this is not like cases of polyglot aphasia)."

Not every person with FAS meets all four criteria. In the last decade, researchers have also found patients with psychogenic FAS, which likely stems from psychological conditions such as schizophrenia rather than a physical brain injury. This form comprises fewer than 10 percent of known FAS cases and is usually temporary, whereas neurogenic FAS is typically permanent.


While scientists are not sure why certain brain injuries or psychiatric problems give rise to FAS, they believe that people with FAS are not actually speaking in a foreign accent. Instead, their neurological damage impairs their ability to make subtle muscle movements in the jaw, tongue, lips, and larynx, which results in pronunciation that mimics the sound of a recognizable accent.

"Vowels are particularly susceptible: Which vowel you say depends on where your tongue is in your mouth," Lyndsey Nickels, a professor of cognitive science at Australia's Macquarie University, wrote in The Conversation. "There may be too much or too little muscle tension and therefore they may 'undershoot' or 'overshoot' their target. This leads to the vowels sounding different, and sometimes they may sound like a different accent."

In Foreign Accent Syndromes: The Stories People Have to Tell, authors Nick Miller and Jack Ryalls suggest that FAS could be one stage in a multi-phase recovery from a more severe speech disorder, such as aphasia—an inability to speak or understand speech that results from brain damage.

People with FAS also show wide variability in their ability to pronounce sounds, choose words, or stress the right syllables. The accent can be strong or mild. Different listeners may hear different accents from the speaker with FAS (Lockett has said people have asked her if she's Polish, Russian, or French).

According to Miller and Ryalls, few studies have been published about speech therapy for treating FAS, and there's no real evidence that speech therapy makes a difference for people with the syndrome. More research is needed to determine if advanced techniques like electromagnetic articulography—visual feedback showing tiny movements of the tongue—could help those with FAS regain their original speaking manner.

Today, one of the pressing questions for neurologists is understanding how the brain recovers after injury. For that purpose, Miller and Ryalls write that "FAS offers a fascinating and potentially fruitful forum for gaining greater insights into understanding the human brain and the speech processes that define our species."

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at

Live Smarter
The Easy Way to Reduce Robocalls on Your Smartphone

We can shoot a Tesla into orbit, but we still can’t stop telemarketing scam artists from calling us. The Federal Trade Commission fields an average of 375,000 complaint calls every month about these nuisance solicitations, which often disguise their identities using spoof numbers and are hoping to trick you into revealing your financial information. They’re annoying, illicit, and insulting, but they can be reduced.

According to Verge writer Chris Welch, robocalls sent to iPhone or Android smartphones can be thwarted a number of different ways. Many major cell carriers offer apps that block numbers suspected of being fraudulent. AT&T calls theirs Call Protect, for example, and alerts you when an incoming call seems dubious. You can then choose to ignore it or put it on a permanent block list. T-Mobile has Scam Block, which keeps tabs on known scam numbers and prevents them from getting through.

These services range from being free to leaving a minor ($2.99) surcharge on your monthly bill. For more aggressive blocking, third-party apps like Nomorobo and RoboKiller maintain huge databases of scam numbers and use them to compare incoming calls—once a robocall is detected, it’s cut off.

If you’re still not satisfied with one of these options, you may want to consider a hardware upgrade: Recent models from Samsung like the Galaxy S and Note use a Smart Call feature to curtail unwanted calls.

People who get calls on conventional landline phones shouldn’t give up hope, either. Broadband services like Spectrum (formerly Time Warner Cable) have a version of Nomorobo that will block calls from confirmed scam numbers.

[h/t the Verge]


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