How our brains let us tune out spouses

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Study reveals how brain allows us to tune out our spouses
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If your spouse ignores your voice from across a crowded room, it’s likely they’re doing it on purpose, according to a new study published online in Psychological Science.

Researchers involved in the study report that the recognizable voice of a spouse stands out against background noise, strengthening their ability to hear you while focusing on what other individuals are saying.

For the study, Ingrid Johnsrude from Queen's University in Canada and her colleagues recorded the voices of married couples, aged 44 to 79, as they read out load from a script. The research team then put each pair separately on headphones to listen to the other spouse’s voice at the same time a stranger’s voice was played as well.

Occasionally, the participants were asked to repeat what their spouse said. Other times they were asked to repeat what the stranger said.

Johnsrude and her colleagues found that "familiar voices appear to influence the way an auditory 'scene' is perceptually organized."

Accordingly, the research team wanted to find out whether familiarity would affect how well the participants understood what the voices were saying.

The results revealed that participants were able to perceive the voice of their spouse much better than the stranger's voice with an accuracy that did not change, regardless of age.

But when participants were asked to perceive the voice of the stranger, the researchers discovered that there were age-related differences among spouses.

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For example, those who were middle-aged were able to understand the stranger’s voice very well, especially when it was "masked" by their spouse's voice, meaning they could better follow the stranger’s voice when it was played at the same time as their spouse's voice, compared with when it was played at the same time another unfamiliar voice.

"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," Johnsrude explained.


However, noted Johnsrude, the older participants were less able to correctly interpret what the stranger said; thus, middle-age individuals were able to ignore their spouse’s voice, while the older spouses did not have this ability quite as much.

The study authors concluded that, while 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.

In other words, while the ability to perceptually organize an auditory 'scene' may diminish with age, the ability to recognize a familiar voice – such as a spouse – does not.

Indeed, the study found that the disadvantage of being incapable of detecting an unfamiliar voice in old age actually brings with it some positive advantages.

"The relative benefit of having a familiar voice as the target actually increases with age," the research team reported. Johnsrude added that their findings reflect a common problem in older individuals in that they often 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," Johnsrude concluded.

Another recent study published in July in Psychological Science found that we can actually "hear" our inner voice due to a system involved in processing external speech that also works on internal speech.

SOURCE: Psychological Science, "Swinging at a Cocktail Party: Voice Familiarity Aids Speech Perception in the Presence of a Competing Voice". Published online before print August 28, 2013, doi: 10.1177/0956797613482467

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