Emotional gain after verbal loss

Brain-damaged people who have lost much of their ability to understand spoken sentences are better than healthy folks at picking up on emotions that others are trying to conceal, a new study suggests. Damage to brain areas underlying language comprehension may prompt neural growth in regions used to recognize facial expressions and other nonverbal cues, hold neuropsychologist Nancy L. Etcoff of Massachusetts General Hospital in Charlestown and her coworkers.

The researchers examined 10 patients in whom brain damage had blocked much language understanding, 10 brain-damaged individuals with no language problems, and 58 healthy adults. Participants watched a videotape in which people first tried to conceal strong negative emotions and then honestly revealed positive emotions.

Language-impaired participants identified the liars substantially more often than members of the other groups did, Etcoff’s group reports in the May 11 Nature.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.