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Neuroimage. 2012 May 1;60(4):2346-56. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.02.043. Epub 2012 Feb 28.

Multimodal human communication--targeting facial expressions, speech content and prosody.

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  • 1Department of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy, and Psychosomatics, Medical School, RWTH Aachen University, Aachen, Germany.


Human communication is based on a dynamic information exchange of the communication channels facial expressions, prosody, and speech content. This fMRI study elucidated the impact of multimodal emotion processing and the specific contribution of each channel on behavioral empathy and its prerequisites. Ninety-six video clips displaying actors who told self-related stories were presented to 27 healthy participants. In two conditions, all channels uniformly transported only emotional or neutral information. Three conditions selectively presented two emotional channels and one neutral channel. Subjects indicated the actors' emotional valence and their own while fMRI was recorded. Activation patterns of tri-channel emotional communication reflected multimodal processing and facilitative effects for empathy. Accordingly, subjects' behavioral empathy rates significantly deteriorated once one source was neutral. However, emotionality expressed via two of three channels yielded activation in a network associated with theory-of-mind-processes. This suggested participants' effort to infer mental states of their counterparts and was accompanied by a decline of behavioral empathy, driven by the participants' emotional responses. Channel-specific emotional contributions were present in modality-specific areas. The identification of different network-nodes associated with human interactions constitutes a prerequisite for understanding dynamics that underlie multimodal integration and explain the observed decline in empathy rates. This task might also shed light on behavioral deficits and neural changes that accompany psychiatric diseases.

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