Innuendos can be hilarious and exhausting depending on the nature of their delivery. When someone slips a lewd phrase into a seemingly innocent sentence – whether on purpose or by accident – it can elicit a strong reaction which seemingly got one researcher wondering: what’s actually happening when we register an innuendo?
New research published in the journal Biological Psychology found out just that, by getting participants to listen to recorded innuendos which had both literal and sexual interpretations, and monitoring what went on in their brain. To spice it up, the voices were sometimes neutral and other times said in a sexually evocative tone. Beyond getting volunteers hot under the collar, the intention was to explore if speech prosody had an influence on the way we interpret speech, that is, the rhythmic use of language which emphasizes words and phrases
“When you speak with someone, the message itself has a meaning, but you can also use other types of information which will help you to understand what the speaker wants to say, be it his posture or his tone of voice,” said study author Simon Rigoulot, a professor at the University of Quebec, to PsyPost. “For example, we could say ‘how great this person is’ in an ironic tone of voice, with the intention to convey the actual complete opposite message of the literal one, i.e., that the person we are seeing is in fact not great at all.”
Rigoulot has a history with prosody, having explored its impact on brain activity when receiving genuine-sounding compliments and those which came across as insincere. Not yet satisfied with his probing of the organ, Rigoulot returned in this new research to see how our brains behave when we sense something sexy’s afoot. He strapped electroencephalography (EEG) sets to the brains of 24 young adults as they listened to plain and thirsty vocabulary, with titillating examples including “He handled her melons carefully.”
An analysis of the recordings themselves showed that sexually suggestive language is often uttered more slowly compared to dry old perfunctory speech, and is said in a deeper pitch. When Rigoulot and colleagues reviewed the EEG data, it showed that sexual innuendos trigger a unique reaction in the brain which returned a heightened response.
“When you speak with someone and this person uses a sexual innuendo, we found that the brain very quickly integrates what is said (the semantic/linguistic information) with how it is said (the prosody or the tone of voice). This integration serves the full understanding of the message delivered by the speaker and its real intentions,” Rigoulot said. “Moreover, we also found a specific response of the brain to these sexual innuendos, suggesting that there is a distinct processing for this type of language. This is, in our opinion, consistent with the idea that innuendos have a very high social relevance (sexual content and taboo information). Altogether, this study is unique and contributes greatly to the understanding of how prosodic information is used during sentence processing.”
The novel research is just the tip of what could one day represent a well-rounded body of research into the way our brains process sexual innuendos, with the potential to penetrate the subject deeper by exposing the neurocognitive processes behind Rigoulot’s observations. But you’ll have to make do with the above for now, I have a meeting with HR.