60-Second Science

Same Old Song May Sound Different To Individuals

Neurons in the brain's hearing center reacted differently to the same sounds in different test subjects--so different people may hear the same sound differently. Cynthia Graber reports.

Our ears are highly attuned to sounds in the world around us. It’s not just the frequency of the sound itself. There are also subtle differences and shifts in loudness and pitch. That’s what tells us, for instance, whether that baby crying belongs to us and just where it’s located. But according to a recent study, what you and I hear may not sound the same.
Scientists at the University of Oxford are trying to understand how the ears and the brain work together. They fit ferrets with auditory implants, trained them to respond to sound, and then looked at the way their neurons reacted. It turns out that each ferret’s neurons in the auditory cortex responded to changes in gradual differences in sound ­ but each ferret responded differently.
The researchers say this is applicable to humans. They say this means that our brains are wired to process sounds depending on how our ears deliver that sound. So if you suddenly heard the world through my ears, it might sound quite different. The scientists say this research could help in the quest to design better hearing aids and speech recognition systems.

—Cynthia Graber

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