It is often said that humans are visual animals, but there is little doubt that our exceptional capacity for social communication is auditory-vocal in nature. Critically, this capacity is not limited to speech, but also includes more abstract aspects of vocal communication (e.g., proselytizing, poetry, and music). A core feature of this “speech-music continuum” is conveyance of affect through sound, made possible by an auditory-vocal functionality that reflexively attributes affect to voice-like stimuli. This functionality is critical to human social behavior, and its impairment features prominently in multiple psychiatric disorders, including most significantly, autism. Progress in understanding auditory-vocal affect has been limited by lack of experimental innovation and integration between psychiatry, cognitive science, neuroscience, and the emerging discipline of auditory-vocal affect as realized in speech and music. This proposal brings together faculty with this diverse expertise to develop the first gold standard test of auditory-vocal affect. Once developed, validated, and normed, we will deploy this test in the clinical context of autism to quantify impairments and direct neurobiological investigation. Findings from this research will advance auditory-vocal communication as a critical dimension of clinical research, and change the way we think about social function and dysfunction in autism and beyond.
Daniel Bowling (psychiatry and behavioral sciences)