Auditory Communication of Affect

The Neuronal Computation of Emotion

Jagmeet S. Kanwal
Associate Professor, Physiology & Biophysics, Georgetown University

2277th Meeting Abstract
Friday, December 17, 2010 at 8:15 PM

Jagmeet Kanwal, Ph.D.


Sound is one of the most important modalities of communication between individuals and species, particularly for the transmission of emotive content (affect). The variety and complexity of affective aural communications in biology has long challenged scientists interested in understanding how emotive information is encoded and processed in the brain. Relatively recent improvements in electro-neurophysiological recording techniques have enabled measurements of the electrical activities associated with the processing of sounds in the brain with great precision, leading to new progress in this area. The techniques have been especially productive in studying the processing of sound by bats. Studies of the bat cerebral cortex and amygdala using these techniques have provided considerable insight into how emotional motivational information is represented in single brain cells, and how the information influences the neural circuits that guide behavior. This research, combined with other recent findings, shows that mammalian neurophysiology and brain function – including that of the human brain – is built upon a repackaging and reconfiguration of neuronal architecture and neural circuitry that evolved long ago. While we are far from fully understanding how this circuitry processes affective information, it is clear that it is this neural architecture that makes it possible for us to understand the complex auditory signals that – while we take them for granted – are central to our well being not only in primitive natural setting but also in the complex, technological societies most humans now inhabit.

About the Author:

Jagmeet S. Kanwal is an associate professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics and the Department of Psychology at Georgetown University, and an external professor at the Krasnow Institute at George Mason University. He uses interdisciplinary approaches to understand the functional organization of the brain from the viewpoint of behavior, and he has long been interested in understanding the neural representation of social calls in the cerebral hemispheres and the amygdala of bat brains. He also has made fundamental contributions to our understanding of chemosensory systems, including the discovery of taste centers in the forebrain of fish. He was among the first scientists to use magnetic resonance imaging to study brain structure and function in awake animals, and he is internationally recognized for his work on the cortical mechanisms for the perception of complex sounds, including the discovery in bats of right-left cerebral asymmetry for processing species-specific vocalizations.

He received his BS. from Delhi University and his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from Louisiana State University. He did postdoctoral work at the University of Colorado and Washington University before joining the faculty at Georgetown University, as a founding member of the Georgetown Institute for Cognitive and Computational Sciences. His research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Defense (DOD). He has served on review panels for all of these agencies. He has organized several symposia at the national and international levels and is the author of numerous peer-reviewed publications. He is co-editor of “Behavior and Neurodynamics for Auditory Communication” published by Cambridge University Press External Link, and co-author of the popular book “Bats Sing, Mice Giggle” published by ICON Publishers, London, UK (available here External Link). He received the Alexander von Humboldt fellows award in 1995.

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