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Last updated on April 24, 2014 at 17:35 EDT

The Skinny On Hearing

November 30, 2009

Your largest organ, the skin, plays a part in what you hear, Canadian researchers announced.

Research found that silent puffs of air sent with specific sounds affected what people thought they were hearing. The results indicate that audio and visual hints were not the only ways people hear.

In this unique study, researchers at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver wanted to determine if tactile feelings contribute to how sounds are heard. They used puffs of air accompanied by sounds to determine if the air helped the subject hear.

Their research implies that people do use tactile sensory data with additional cues to figure out what is being said.

This supplementary information in how sound is heard might help the future creation of hearing aids, the researchers added.

Study leader Dr Bryan Gick said to BBC News that “all we need is a pneumatic device that can produce air puffs aimed at the neck at the right times based on acoustic input into the hearing aid, and then a set of experiments to test the efficacy.”

Dr Ralph Holme added that: “It is well known that visual cues, like lip reading, can really help people listen to speech if they have a hearing loss.  However, some consonants such as b and p or t and d have the same lip pattern.”

“The possibility that a small puff of air on the skin could help people distinguish between these consonants is fascinating. If further research can show the same effect is observed when listening to everyday conversation in the ‘real’ world, then it could help improve hearing aids,” he concluded.

Dr Deborah James, chief scientist for child and family at National Biomedical Research Unit in Hearing, added that the sounds connected to “tiny puffs of air” aid young children tell the difference between the start and the end of words.

“We are exploring the earliest development of auditory/visual speech perception in very young babies with hearing difficulties – perhaps we should be looking out for how the babies respond to the natural puffs of air that parents produce when they get up close to their baby during their earliest conversations.”

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