The neuroscience of a good impression

22 August 2016

Interview with

Prof Sophie Scott, UCL

Brain scanningWhat's the difference between a good and great vocal impressionist? Sophie Scott from University College London, is well on her way to finding out, after putting amateurs and professionals in her brain scanner, as she explained to Chris Smith.

Sophie - I wanted to know what they we doing so I have done a handful of individual cases of people who are voice artists to try and get to grips with what's happening when they change their voice.

Chris - Because, of course, we have circuits in our brains that know the words we want to say; we have other circuits in our brains that control what the muscles of our faces do and our diaphragm and vocal cords do, but that's to make your own voice. So put me in the shoes of someone trying to change their voice. How do they do that?

Sophie - Two different things seem to happen. So if you take people who are not professionals, so me just trying to impersonate my mum, for example, what you see, and we've actually done this as a proper study, is that you can actually see in their brains they're actually thinking about the sounds of that voice and they're trying to get there. They're using like an auditory target to try and change their voice.

One of the things that is interesting about voice artists is they don't seem to do that. A couple of people I've looked at when they are changing their voice, what they do is they drive visual and sensory motor parts of the brain. So they seem to be thinking about what people people look like and how they move in order to change their voice and that's something you don't see in non-professionals. It seems to be a completely different approach to what somebody should sound like.

Chris - Well have does it change then when someone goes professional and becomes Rory Bremner who can do anybody, as far as I can tell - what does he do differently?

Sophie - Well do you know what, hopefully, one day when I've got more than a handful of people through the scanner, I'll be able to give you a better answer, but one of the things does seem to be a completely different approach to the voice. So, people who are non-professionals they're thinking about sound, the professionals seem to be approaching the voice almost like a whole body phenomenon; they're thinking about everything that somebody does; they'll talk about what people eyebrows are doing and how their hands are moving; things that do not affect what you sound like directly.  The other thing that, anecdotally, I have noticed in the voice artists I've worked with, the impressionists I've worked with, is that  very frequently intensely musical. So, perhaps, they are simply approaching the voice as a musician might; their instrument rather than somebody thinking about speech and what speech should sound like. And I think that is what everybody else is doing.

Chris - Now when you say the real pros, they adopt the other mannerisms of a person they're seeking to imitate. Do you get an affect then where your eyes read onto your brain what you want to see and, therefore, you create the sounds in your head because you see them behaving like that so you almost hear the real person, and so you're fooled into thinking they sound more like the person than they really do?

Sophie - Well you definitely see that. If you look there's lots of YouTube videos of people doing amazing impression and very often they really help that by having labels that appear, so that's slightly guiding us. But I think it's even more basic because I've noticed people do that even if they're doing a radio recording. So they're doing something for which they will be recognised only by their voice but they're still moving their body differently; they're moving their face differently to get to that impression. So I think it is just a basically different way of approaching altogether how you sound.

Chris - And thinking about the neuroscience and the anatomical nuts and bolts of how we do this. How does your voice actually work and enable you to produce all this different range of sounds and try to sound like somebody else?

Sophie - Well, we don't often think about it this way but, actually, the voice is an unbelievably complex musical instrument and it's operating unlike pretty much anything else you can find in nature with the exception of some song birds.

So we've got the larynx, which is your voice box, and that's where you're making a sound so if you put your finger on your throat and go 'uhh,' you can feel the vibration and that's the source of most of our speech and sort of uses of our voice. And then you shape that with your articulators, which are your lips, your tongue, your soft palate at the back of your throat, and your jaw. And it's as if you're playing a musical instrument where you're continuously changing your timbre by how how you're moving the articulators. That's the sort of template for how we talk.

But then within that it's still unbelievably flexible so you can do all sorts of thing with your larynx; you can vary the pitch of your voice; you can vary how you vibrate your vocal folds, so I'm talking talking right now with what's called model voice, but I can talk with a breathier voice, which isn't actually entirely coming from the larynx...

Chris - Like the woman off Masterchef?

Sophie - Yes. Or I can speak with a croakier voice that's really valenced. Some people really, really hate it and actually, in the UK, it's rather a posh way of speaking; lots and lots of posh people have got a very croaky voices. So that's kind of coming from changes right down in your larynx and then you've got all these different things that are happening up in the articulators. My old boss in Cambridge had an extremely nasal voice and he's just using his soft palate differently. I have another colleague who has a different tension in her jaw when she's talking and that's all little ticks and stuff that going in there that's kind of cueing you into who it is that you're talking to.

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