Reading our partner’s name in a text message can immediately elicit emotions like happiness. In contrast, reading the name of a rival in an email may make us feel angry. This shows that words that do not initially have any emotional meaning (like names) can be associated with a certain valence. If we meet somebody, their name has a neutral association for us. However, if we fall in love with them, the name all of a sudden gains a positive valence.
Neuroscientists from Göttingen University are investigating how exactly emotions become associated with words. For this purpose, they present neutral words or so-called “pseudowords” like “foti” or “metu” in a motivational context. These pseudowords do not exist in the real language and therefore have not previously been associated with any meaning to the participants. To associate these words with a context, for example, every time a participant sees the word “foti”, they lose money, while every time they see the word “metu”, they gain money. This way, a word can be associated with a negative or positive meaning.
Using Bayesian modeling techniques, it can be investigated how fast a word is learned, depending on the type of association that participants build with it. The researchers showed that positive associations are learned particularly fast. The connection of a word with a positive context is consistently learned first before connections with negative or neutral contexts are made (Kulke et al., 2019).
However, the brain reacts, particularly to negative associations. Electroencephalography (EEG) makes it possible, to measure neural reactions to words. With this method, scientists can measure with a resolution of a few milliseconds how fast the brain responds to words and whether this response differs between positive and negative words. EEG measures showed that the brain differentiates between negatively associated words, compared to neutral words already as early as 100 ms after we see them (Kulke et al., 2019).
The brain not only reacts to associations with words this quickly, but the same is also true for associations with faces (Hammerschmidt, Sennhenn-Reulen, & Schacht, 2017) or Chinese characters (Schacht et al., 2012). This suggests that our brain builds fast associations with different sorts of objects, telling us quickly whether we know them from a positive, neutral or negative context.
In summary, although we can learn positive associations with words very fast, our brain strongly reacts to negative associations in the long run. This enables us to quickly access the emotional context we know a word from.