A Touching Speech

30 November 2009
Posted by Chris Smith.

Some orators are congratulated on delivering a touching oratory, but new research suggests that we genuinely do feel "moved" by speech - and use the sensation to work out what people are saying.

LipsWriting in Nature, University of British Columbia scientists Bryan Gick and Donald Derrick show how a puff of air to the skin of the hand or neck can cause listeners to misinterpret "ba" and "da" sounds as "pa" and "ta" noises.  When English speakers make these latter two sounds, they are accompanied (much to the chagrin of radio producers!) by a rush of air from the mouth.  But B and D-dominated sounds are not.

The question is, to what extent are listeners sensitive to these air movements, and is it subconsciously used to help decode what's being said?

To find out the researchers blindfolded volunteers and played sounds to them through a set of headphones, asking them to press different buttons according to what they thought they had heard.  At the same time a tube was set up to deliver a puff of air to the hand or neck in synchrony with the sounds.

Incredibly, and regardless of the anatomical site, the presentation of the air puff reinforced listeners' abilities to correctly identify the pa and ta sounds and also caused the volunteers to misidentify ba and da as pa and ta.

This shows, say the researchers, that it's not just the movements of a speaker's lips to which we're sensitive when listening to a conversation.  We're also subconsciously paying attention to the sensations of their breath against the skin - another reason why face to face meeting are probably preferable to a telephone call!

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