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Lend me your ears -- and the world will sound very different
Date:1/13/2008

Recognising people, objects or animals by the sound they make is an important survival skill and something most of us take for granted. But very similar objects can physically make very dissimilar sounds and we are able to pick up subtle clues about the identity and source of the sound. Scientists funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) are working out how the human ear and the brain come together to help us understand our acoustic environment. They have found that the part of the brain that deals with sound, the auditory cortex, is adapted in each individual and tuned to the world around us. We learn throughout our lives how to localise and identify different sounds. It means that if you could hear the world through someone else's ears it would sound very different to what you are used to.

The research, which features in the current issue of BBSRC Business, could help to develop more sophisticated hearing aids and more effective speech recognition systems.

The research team at the University of Oxford, led by Dr Jan Schnupp, have studied the auditory cortex of the brain and discovered that its responses are determined not merely by acoustical properties, like frequency and pitch, but by statistical properties of the sound-scape. In the world loudness and pitch are constantly changing. The random shifts in sounds are underpinned with a statistical regularity. For example, subtle and gradual changes are statistically more regular than large and sudden changes. Dr Schnupp's team have found that our brains are adapted to the former; the neurons in the auditory cortex appear to anticipate and respond best to gradual changes in the soundscape. These are also the patterns most commonly found in both nature and musical compositions.

Dr Schnupp, a research leader at the University of Oxford Auditory Neuroscience Group, said: "Our research to model speech sounds in the lab has shown that auditory neurons
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Contact: Matt Goode
matt.goode@bbsrc.ac.uk
44-179-341-3299
Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council
Source:Eurekalert

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