Why does being familiar with someone’s voice help us understand what they’re saying?

A new study from Western University’s BrainsCAN initiative shows that familiar voices are easier to understand even if a person doesn’t recognize them as familiar. The findings were published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The study showed that even though participants were not able to recognize their friend’s voice when the resonance of their voice was manipulated, they still found it easier to understand than the same words spoken by a stranger.

“Our findings demonstrate that we pick out different information from a voice, depending on whether we’re simply trying to recognize if it’s our friend or family member on the phone or if we’re trying to understand the words they’re saying,” says former Western Postdoctoral Fellow Emma Holmes and first author on the study. “This shows we focus on different parts of speech sounds for different purposes.”

Holmes, now a Research Associate at University College London’s Queen Square Institute of Neurology, and Ingrid Johnsrude, Western Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and Professor at Western’s School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, studied the factors that influence how participants perceive others’ voices across a variety of contexts. In previous work, the researchers found that familiarity offers an advantage in noisy situations, such as a crowded restaurant, making the voices of friends and family easier to understand than the voices of strangers.

“This suggests that, over time, we must learn something about the voices of the people we frequently talk to, which helps us to better understand the words they’re saying,” Holmes explains. “For this study we asked: Why does being familiar with someone’s voice help us understand what they’re saying?”

The study focused on two acoustic properties of the voice that vary reliably across people: pitch and resonance. The aim of the research was to determine how these properties influence our ability to understand what someone is saying and recognize who is speaking.

The study examined 11 pairs of participants and found that participants were better at recognizing their partner’s voice when they heard an unaltered recording compared with any of the manipulated versions. They were also better at recognizing the partner’s voice when the pitch was altered. Intriguingly, even though manipulating the resonance of the partner’s voice made it unrecognizable to participants, they still found it easier to understand than a stranger’s voice.

The results suggest that resonance is a critical acoustic feature that helps us recognize who a particular voice belongs to. Both pitch and resonance can influence our ability to understand what someone familiar is saying, although it seems that we can still understand what they are saying very well when the pitch and resonance of their voice have been altered.

The findings shed light on how we perceive speech in our everyday lives and could have particular implications for individuals with hearing loss, who have even greater difficulty understanding speech in noisy settings.

This study was supported by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Discovery Grant, a Canadian Institutes of Health Research Operating Grant, and by BrainsCAN, Western University’s $66 million Canada First Research Excellence Fund initiative in cognitive neuroscience.

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