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Fun Facts About the Science of Sound
By Elizabeth Holmes

#2. 'The Cocktail Party Effect'
This is an occasional series on vocal oddities, by voice actor and Staff Editor Elizabeth Holmes. Enjoy these glimpses into the science of sound - and learn more about how it benefits you. For earlier reports, search SOUNDS ODD (box above menu bar on this page).
(VOXtra) -  Ever been in a noisy environment and been able to pick out a single conversation?

I’ll bet you have! Most of us have. And the good news is, this turns out to be a natural human ability. Some call it "The Cocktail Party Effect.”   

Researchers at the University of California San Francisco, Nima Mesgarani and Edward F. Chang, recently published fascinating details of their research into this kind of selective hearing in Nature: The International Journal of Science.    
Why does this matter to voice actors? Because we all want OUR voice to be the one that’s heard!   


Megarani’s and Chang’s experiment involved brain surgery on patients with severe epilepsy.  Electrodes on the brain’s surface (beneath the skull) revealed that the auditory cortex reacts only to one targeted speaker at a time. 

It’s "as if subjects were listening to that speaker alone," they write. 

This discovery may lead to better speech recognition systems, and help for those with speech perception disorders.   


What relevance does it have for those of us who depend on being heard above the cacophony of daily life?  

Well, it turns out that gender may play a role in a listener’s perception of the importance of the speaker’s message. Consider this research from David Smith and colleagues from the University of Aberdeen in the UK.  

Smith and his colleagues conducted an experiment in which they showed a group of women visual images, then linked those images with the name of the object spoken by a variety of different voices. 

Later, when confronted with similar (but not identical) versions of those images, those women consistently had better recall of images that had been introduced by a deep male voice.  Unfortunately, they did not do as well with other voices. 


Researchers postulate that this memory link developed as an evolutionary advantage to women seeking potential mates.   

As for the flip side, I have not yet been able to find research that confirms ways to help men listen to women, then remember what they said. (Please, for the sake of women everywhere, let someone, somewhere, be studying this!)  I’ll keep looking.

In the meantime, test your audio skills. Take this fun test and see if you can distinguish one message in a mix of voices at this fun website sponsored by the University of California San Francisco

Articles referenced in this piece include:

Elizabeth Holmes is a writer, voice actor, and staff editor at VoiceOverXtra, based in Northern California. She is also editor of VoiceOverXtra's book division, including Voice Over Legal, by voice actor / attorney Robert Sciglimpaglia.


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