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The representational dynamics of perceived voice emotions evolve from categories to dimensions


Long-standing affective science theories conceive the perception of emotional stimuli either as discrete categories (for example, an angry voice) or continuous dimensional attributes (for example, an intense and negative vocal emotion). Which position provides a better account is still widely debated. Here we contrast the positions to account for acoustics-independent perceptual and cerebral representational geometry of perceived voice emotions. We combined multimodal imaging of the cerebral response to heard vocal stimuli (using functional magnetic resonance imaging and magneto-encephalography) with post-scanning behavioural assessment of voice emotion perception. By using representational similarity analysis, we find that categories prevail in perceptual and early (less than 200 ms) frontotemporal cerebral representational geometries and that dimensions impinge predominantly on a later limbic–temporal network (at 240 ms and after 500 ms). These results reconcile the two opposing views by reframing the perception of emotions as the interplay of cerebral networks with different representational dynamics that emphasize either categories or dimensions.

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Fig. 1: Emotional voice stimuli.
Fig. 2: Spatiotemporal RSA of the representation of perceived emotion attributes in cerebral representational geometries.
Fig. 3: Categories better account for perceived dissimilarity than valence and arousal.
Fig. 4: Perceptual correlates and cerebral representational geometry of acoustics.
Fig. 5: Cerebral representational geometries initially dominated by categories subsequently emphasize dimensions.

Data availability

The following materials are available from a Dryad repository ( single-trial behavioural data, single-cross-validation fold fMRI data, and single-trial MEG data for all participants; anonymized anatomical information required to reconstruct the MEG sources and deform native-space statistical maps to DARTEL and MNI space; and sound stimuli and MTF representations.

Code availability

The Matlab code for reconstructing the MEG sources, carrying out a group-level RSA analysis of the fMRI and MEG representation of perceived emotions, and generating MNI-space statistical maps is available at the following Dryad repository:


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This work was supported by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (grants BB/M009742/1 to J.G., B.L.G., S.A.K. and P.B., and BB/L023288/1 to P.B. and J.G.), by the French Fondation pour la Recherche Médicale (grant AJE201214 to P.B.), and by Research supported by grants ANR-16-CONV-0002 (ILCB), ANR-11-LABX-0036 (BLRI), and the Excellence Initiative of Aix-Marseille University (A*MIDEX). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript. We thank O. Coulon and O. Garrod for help with the development of the 3D glass brain, as well as Y. Cao, I. Charest, C. Crivelli, B. De Gelder, G. Masson, R. A. A. Ince, F. Kusnir, S. McAdams and R. J. Zatorre for useful comments on previous versions of the manuscript.

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Authors and Affiliations



Conceptualization: B.L.G. and P.B.; methodology: B.L.G., C.W., N.K., S.A.K., P.B. and J.G.; software: B.L.G.; validation: B.L.G.; formal analysis: B.L.G., C.W. and J.G.; investigation: B.L.G. and C.W.; resources: B.L.G. and P.B.; data curation: B.L.G. and C.W.; writing, original draft: B.L.G., C.W., S.A.K., P.B. and J.G.; writing, review and editing: B.L.G., C.W., N.K., S.A.K., P.B. and J.G.; visualization: B.L.G.; supervision: B.L.G., P.B. and J.G.; project administration: J.G.; and funding acquisition: B.L.G., S.A.K., P.B. and J.G.

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Correspondence to Bruno L. Giordano, Joachim Gross or Pascal Belin.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature Human Behaviour thanks Behtash Babadi and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Primary Handling Editor: Jamie Horder; Marike Schiffer.

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Giordano, B.L., Whiting, C., Kriegeskorte, N. et al. The representational dynamics of perceived voice emotions evolve from categories to dimensions. Nat Hum Behav 5, 1203–1213 (2021).

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