September 2, 2013
We Like The Sound Of Our Own Partner’s Voice
Relationships are rarely easy — and we may have a complicated set of responses to hearing our partner’s voice. For some people, the soft, silky tones or deep gruffness of our significant other’s voice may be one of the things that make us even more fond of them (we won’t restrict which of those descriptions should apply to men or women, some people have weird tastes).
Alternatively, as soon as we hear our partner pipe up we might think ‘here we go again’ and wonder what we’ve done wrong this time.
But whether we like it or not, new research has shown that our partner’s voice is easier to pick out of a noisy soundscape than an unfamiliar voice is. The study, led by Ingrid Johnsrude of Queen’s University in Canada, tested married couples aged 44-79. It played recordings of a spouse’s voice alongside those of an unfamiliar voice to see if it was easier for somebody to report what their spouse had said than it was to report on the unfamiliar voice. This turned out to be the case.
The study also wanted to know how good the couples were at ignoring their partner’s voice when asked to. Despite perhaps having had years of practice, older couples found this more difficult to do. Older participants reported less accurately what the unfamiliar voice had said.
Middle-aged couples were reasonably adept at disregarding their partner’s voice and taking note of what the unfamiliar voice was saying. However, the element of the partner’s voice was still a factor in being able to pick out unfamiliar sounds from a multi-layered auditory ‘scene’ (as Jonsrude described the presence of various sounds together at the same time). When two unfamiliar voices were played together, it was more difficult to accurately listen to either than it was to listen to an unfamiliar voice played alongside a spouse’s.
So, possibly, the conclusion is that our partner’s voice (and so, theoretically, familiar sounds in general) is easier to process, rather than simply easier to hear. Processing may include ignoring as well as focussing on.
Why older people found it more difficult to record what an unfamiliar voice had said could be explained by the standard beliefs about old age — with unwillingness/inability to process new sounds being in the same ballpark as new ideas, technology, food etc… which raises the question of why old people are supposedly less open to new things in general.
Of course, it may be because taking on new things requires a certain level of functionality in the brain and body that diminishes with age. But some theories suggest that it is more of a conscious decision that old people make; that older people simply decide that most fresh concepts and objects are not really going to be useful to them and so discount them. Maybe in the case of voices, they have heard enough people speak in their time who ended up saying nothing that made them particularly happy or interested, so they stopped listening.
But, even if it leaves some open-ended questions about older folk, the study does prove the comforting fact that familiarity is a good thing, and also explains why if we ever say something to an older person, their spouse often has to repeat it for them.
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