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Race Car Fans Develop Special Hearing Abilities

They can identify many vehicles by engine sounds alone, study shows

MONDAY, May 31 (HealthDay News) -- As the Indy 500 unfolds this weekend, diehard race car fans may employ a trick that non-fans can scarcely imagine: They'll actually "see" the difference between the speeding competitors' engines with nothing but their ears.

At least, that's what a new study from the Indiana University School of Medicine suggests.

Noting that prior research has revealed trained musicians can develop enhanced listening expertise over time, researchers from IU's department of otolaryngology tested the auditory skills of longtime race fans among 21 people, some of whom were hardcore race fans and some of whom had never even been to a racetrack.

At the actual Indianapolis Motor Speedway, participants were exposed to a group of sounds for three seconds apiece, including the engine hum of Formula One cars, Indy cars, NASCAR engines, and motorcycles, and another group of sounds that included tractor noises and other racing sounds.

"We wanted to know if a person with more racing experience could extract more information from a sound than from someone with no experience," co-author Dr. Tonya R. Bergeson-Dana, director of IU's DeVault Otologic Research Laboratory, said in a news release.

Bergeson-Dana and her colleagues found that the more often a participant had been to a motorsports event, the better they were at correctly identifying the type of racing vehicle they heard.

However, race "experience" did not improve the listener's overall ability to distinguish between differing environmental sounds or tones, the authors noted.

"This research is interesting because it helps explain how the brain handles auditory information," said Dr. Bergeson-Dana. "Musicians develop auditory skills based on years of formal training, but this study shows that people can also develop a form of auditory expertise with only informal experience."

The team plans to continue their work by exploring how such informally acquired expertise might help pit crews and drivers make near-instantaneous decisions when necessary.

More information

For the mechanics of hearing, visit the UCSC site on hearing and perception.

-- Alan Mozes

SOURCE: Indiana University School of Medicine, May 25, 2010, news release

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