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Your Skin Can Help Your Ears Listen
Date:11/25/2009

Study found puffs of air on flesh that mimicked parts of speech colored perception of sounds

WEDNESDAY, Nov. 25 (HealthDay News) -- People can "hear" not only with their ears, but also with their skin, new research shows.

In fact, sensations on the skin designed to mimic certain types of speech actually helped people decipher sounds better, the Canadian scientists found.

"We have never been able to show whether we could use tactile information in this way," said Bryan Gick, co-author of a letter to the editor in the Nov. 26 issue of Nature.

At this point, the research has more implications for basic science, for "how perception works," explained Gick, an associate professor of linguistics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. "We're picking up on this information, and integrating it seamlessly [in the brain]."

But, he added, "once we understand the mechanics, it's much easier to see how applications could grow out of it. Perhaps we could design a perceptual aid [for people with hearing impairments] or special headphones for pilots to distinguish sounds and noises."

Scientists already knew that visual cues -- looking at a person's face or lips, for instance -- can help someone figure out what that person is saying, but little research has looked into the tactile side of things.

Traditional thought held that one hears with the ears and sees with the eyes, with each of these perceptions linked to a separate part of the brain.

More recent research, however, has suggested that the senses merge when interpreting sights or sounds. "The brain doesn't care where the information comes from," Gick said. "It picks up from different senses."

If sight and sound don't match, for example, what you're seeing can actually override what you're hearing.

"People would report having heard what the eyes tell me," Gick said.

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