What did you hear?
“For the first time, we were able to link the auditory signal in the brain to what a person said they heard when what they actually heard was something different. We found vision is influencing the hearing part of the brain to change your perception of reality — and you can’t turn off the illusion,” says the new study’s first author, Elliot Smith, a bioengineering and neuroscience graduate student at the University of Utah. “People think there is this tight coupling between physical phenomena in the world around us and what we experience subjectively, and that is not the case.”
The McGurk effect
The brain considers both sight and sound when processing speech. However, if the two are slightly different, visual cues dominate sound. This phenomenon is named the McGurk effect for Scottish cognitive psychologist Harry McGurk, who pioneered studies on the link between hearing and vision in speech perception in the 1970s. The McGurk effect has been observed for decades. However, its origin has been elusive. In the new study in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, the University of Utah team pinpointed the source of the McGurk effect by recording and analyzing brain signals in the temporal cortex, the region of the brain that typically processes sound. The researchers recorded electrical signals from the brain surfaces of four epileptic adult volunteers who were undergoing surgery to treat their epilepsy. These four test subjects were then asked to watch and listen to videos focused on a person’s mouth as they said the syllables “ba,” “va,” “ga” and “tha.” Depending on which of three different videos were being watched, the patients had one of three possible experiences as they watched the syllables being mouthed:
— The motion of the mouth matched the sound. For example, the video showed “ba” and the audio sound also was “ba,” so the patients saw and heard “ba.”
— The motion of the mouth obviously did not match the corresponding sound, like a badly dubbed movie. For example, the video showed “ga” but the audio was “tha,” so the patients perceived this disconnect and correctly heard “tha.”
— The motion of the mouth only was mismatched slightly with the corresponding sound. For example, the video showed “ba” but the audio was “va,” and patients heard “ba” even though the sound really was “va.” This demonstrates the McGurk effect — vision overriding hearing.