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Your Partner's Voice is Easier to Hear... and Ignore

Update Date: Aug 30, 2013 02:14 PM EDT
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Your partner's voice stands out so much that it is easier to hear and ignore, according to a new study.

Scientists have discovered that the familiar voice of a spouse stands out against all other voices by sharpening auditory perception and making it easier to focus on one voice at a time.

However, your partner's voice is also easier to ignore.  Researchers said this is particularly true for middle-aged people, who are able to separate and ignore a familiar voice to pay more attention to an unfamiliar voice.

"Familiar voices appear to influence the way an auditory 'scene' is perceptually organized," lead researcher Ingrid Johnsrude of Queen's University, Canada, explained in a news release.

The latest study involved married couples between the ages of 44 and 79.  Participants recorded themselves reading scripted instruction out loud.  Afterwards, each participant put on a pair of headphones and listened to the recording of his or her spouse as it played simultaneously with a recording of an unfamiliar voice.

In some experiments, participants were asked to report what their spouse said, and in others were asked to report what the unfamiliar voice said.

Johnsrude and her team wanted to see whether familiarity would make a difference in how well the participants understood what the target voice was saying.

The findings revealed that there was a clear benefit of listening to the familiar voice. Researchers found that people were significantly more accurate on the task when they had to listen to their spouse's voice compared to an unfamiliar voice matched on both age and sex.  People also perceived their spouses voice more clearly.

The study also found that accuracy didn't change as participants got older when they were listening to their spouses' voice. However, age-related differences emerged when participants were asked to report the unfamiliar voice. Researchers explained that performance on these experiments declined as the participants got older, meaning that the older the participant was, the less able he or she was to report correctly what the unfamiliar voice was saying.

Researchers said that middle-aged adults were relatively adept at following the unfamiliar voice, especially when it was masked by their spouse's voice. They explained that middle-aged people were better at understanding the unfamiliar voice when it was masked by their spouse's voice compared to when it was masked by 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.

"Middle-age people can ignore their spouse-older people aren't able to as much," Johnsrude added. She said that the findings suggest that an individual's ability to use what they know about voices to perceptually organize an auditory "scene" may become compromised with age.

"These findings speak to a problem that is very common amongst older individuals-difficulty hearing speech when there is background sound," Johnsrude said. "Our study identifies a cognitive factor-voice familiarity-that could help older listeners to hear better in these situations."

The findings are published in the journal Psychological Science.

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