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Brains rely on sight to identify voices

In a new study led by the University of Pittsburgh, experts have discovered that brains rely on sight to identify a familiar voice. While listening to the voices of U.S. presidents, study participants used the same brain region to recognize both voices and faces. 

The results suggest that voice and face recognition are more closely linked than what was previously understood. 

“From behavioral research, we know that people can identify a familiar voice faster and more accurately when they can associate it with the speaker’s face, but we never had a good explanation of why that happens,” said study senior author Dr. Taylor Abel of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. 

“In the visual cortex, specifically in the part that typically processes faces, we also see electrical activity in response to famous people’s voices, highlighting how deeply the two systems are interlinked.” 

Neuroscientists have widely acknowledged a connection between auditory and the visual brain processing, but those systems were expected to have distinct and separate structures. 

The study was focused on epilepsy surgery patients, who had been were temporarily implanted with electrodes that measure brain activity. The participants were presented with photographs and voice recordings of three U.S. presidents – Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. 

For the investigation, electrical activity was recorded in the brain region that processes visual cues, the fusiform gyri (FG). The experts found that the same brain region became active when participants heard familiar voices, even though this response was slightly delayed.  

“This is important because it shows that auditory and visual areas interact very early when we identify people, and that they don’t work in isolation,” said Dr. Abel. “In addition to enriching our understanding of the basic functioning of the brain, our study explains the mechanisms behind disorders where voice or face recognition is compromised, such as in some dementias or related disorders.” 

The study is published in the Journal of Neurophysiology

By Chrissy Sexton, Editor

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