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If your spouse ignores your voice from across a crowded room, chances are they have chosen to. According to a recent study, the recognizable voice of a spouse stands out against background noise, sharpening perception and focus for other individual voices.
Ingrid Johnsrude from Queen's University in Canada, along with colleagues, recorded married couples between the ages of 44 and 79, who read scripted lines out loud. Then, each pair separately put on headphones and listened to his or her spouse's voice as it played at the same time as a stranger's voice.
Sometimes the participants were asked to repeat what their spouse said, and sometimes they were asked to repeat what the stranger said.
Johnsrude says that "familiar voices appear to influence the way an auditory 'scene' is perceptually organized." As such, she and her team wanted to see whether familiarity would affect how well the participants could understand what the voices were saying.
Results show that participants were able to perceive the voice of their spouse much more clearly than the stranger's voice, and this level of accuracy did not change among the older participants in the study.
However, when the participants were asked to perceive the voice of the stranger, researchers noticed that age-related differences emerged.
Middle-aged adults could follow the unfamiliar voice very well, particularly when it was "masked" by their spouse's voice. In other words, they could better understand the unfamiliar voice when it was played alongside their spouse's voice, compared with when it was played alongside another unfamiliar voice.
As Johnsrude explains:
"The middle-aged adults were able to use what they knew about the familiar voice to perceptually separate and ignore it, so as to hear the unfamiliar voice better."
But as the participants increased in age, the less able they were to correctly relay what the stranger's voice was saying. So middle-age people are able to ignore their spouse, but older people do not have this capability quite as much, notes Johnsrude.
The researchers conclude their study by noting that although auditory performance declines with age when the speaker is a stranger, there is no decline in performance when the speaker is the listener's spouse.
Although the ability to perceptually organize an auditory 'scene' may weaken with age, the ability to recognize a familiar voice does not diminish.
In fact, the researchers note that the disadvantage of not being able to pick out an unfamiliar voice in old age comes with something positive: "The relative benefit of having a familiar voice as the target actually increases with age."
Johnsrude says that their findings reflect a common problem in older individuals, wherein they have difficulty hearing what people are saying when there is background noise.
"Our study identifies a cognitive factor - voice familiarity - that could help older listeners to hear better in these situations."
A recent study found that we can "hear" our inner voice because a system involved in processing external speech also works on internal speech.
Written by Marie Ellis
Copyright: Medical News Today
Not to be reproduced without the permission of Medical News Today.
Swinging at a Cocktail Party: Voice Familiarity Aids Speech Perception in the Presence of a Competing Voice Ingrid S. Johnsrude, et al., Psychological Science, published online 28 August 2013.
Visit our Neurology / Neuroscience category page for the latest news on this subject.
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Ellis, Marie. "Spouse's voice easier to understand or ignore in a crowd." Medical News Today. MediLexicon, Intl., 31 Aug. 2013. Web.
7 Dec. 2013. <http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/265415>
Ellis, M. (2013, August 31). "Spouse's voice easier to understand or ignore in a crowd." Medical News Today. Retrieved from
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