60-Second Science

Weak Have Stronger Hearing

A study presented May 21st at the meeting of the Acoustical Society of America finds that smaller, scrawnier people seem to have more sensitive hearing than the big and buff. Karen Hopkin reports

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

If you ever got picked on in the schoolyard, you might have wished for some sort of superpower: like unbeatable speed or maybe just the ability to completely disappear. Now scientists at the College of Wooster in Ohio say that you might have had a skill you didn’t realize: the uncanny ability to hear a bully coming.

An earlier study found that women hear approaching noises sooner than their bigger, brawnier male counterparts. Perhaps, the scientists thought, the same would hold true for scrawny specimens versus the truly buff. So they had 50 volunteers listen to a tone that sounds like it’s moving toward them. The listeners pressed a button when it sounded like the tone arrived. The scientists then assessed each subject’s strength and cardiovascular fitness.

And they found that the 98-pound weaklings banged their buttons quicker than the well-muscled, because they perceived the threatening sound as being closer than it actually was. The finding got a hearing May 21st at the meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in Portland, Oregon.

Such auditory overreacting, the scientists say, could be a survival mechanism. So that the meek, while waiting to inherit the earth, can avoid getting knocked onto it.

—Karen Hopkin

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