The ear is quicker than the eye. People can detect changes in sound in a few thousandths of a second while their eyes need about a fiftieth of second to spot a change. This audio ability has prompted researchers to take information normally shown visually and turn it into sounds, a process called sonification. It allows researchers to pick up on differences at faster rates.

In medicine, for instance, audio can speed up the analysis of a cancer biopsy. Normally a pathologist looks at cells with an instrument that bounces light off their proteins. Cancer cells tend to have different proteins than do healthy cells, so the light looks different. But the changes are subtle and figuring them out can be time-consuming.

Ryan Stables, a musician and digital media technologist at Birmingham City University in England, working with an analytic chemist and a physicist, transformed these visual signals into audio sounds.


In tests, about 150 clinicians listened to pairings like these. They were able to accurately distinguish cancer cells from healthy cells 90 percent of the time. The researchers expect to begin testing this technique in doctor’s offices within the year. Their hope is to get accurate diagnoses to anxious patients quickly.