Link between recognizing our voice and feeling

Professor Imamizu and a volunteer conduct the experiment.

image: Professor Imamizu and a volunteer conduct the experiment.
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Credit: 2022 Hiroshi Imamizu, University of Tokyo.

Being able to recognize our own voice is a critical factor in our sense of control over our speech, according to a study by researchers at the University of Tokyo. If people think they hear someone else’s voice when they speak, they don’t feel strongly that they caused the sound. This could be a clue to understanding the experience of people living with auditory hallucinations and could help improve online communication and virtual reality experiences.

Have you ever heard a playback of your voice and were surprised by how it sounded? Part of our self-image is based on how we think we sound when we speak. This contributes to our sense of agency, or sense of control, over our actions, that is, “I saw a result, therefore I felt I was doing the action; my voice was heard, therefore I felt that I was speaking.”

A dysfunctional sense of freedom of choice over speech can be a cause of auditory hallucinations. This is a common symptom of schizophrenia, a mental illness characterized by distortions of reality that affect how a person thinks, feels, and acts. People with auditory hallucinations can hear voices when alone or not speaking, and may find it difficult to recognize their own voice when they do. While some experiments have explored people’s sense of agency over their movements, the sense of agency over speech has not been extensively studied to date.

Then-project researcher Ryu Ohata and Professor Hiroshi Imamizu, of the Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology at the University of Tokyo, and their team recruited healthy volunteers in Japan to help them investigate this through two linked psychological experiments. The volunteers spoke simple sounds and then responded to hearing their voices played back under different conditions — normal, with a raised pitch, with a lowered pitch, and with varying delays.

“This study explored the meaning of self-talk in terms of agency, something that previous studies have never looked at,” Ohata says. “Our results show that hearing one’s own voice is a critical factor for greater self-reliance over speech. In other words, we don’t feel strongly that ‘I’ generates the speech when we hear someone else’s voice as a result of the speech. Our study provides empirical evidence of the close relationship between the sense of agency and the identity of one’s own voice.”

In previous studies, the longer the delay in the outcome of a person’s action — such as pressing a button and seeing a result — the less likely the person was likely to feel they had completed the action. had caused. However, in this study, the team found that the volunteers’ sense of agency remained strong when they heard their normal voice, regardless of the delay. The strength of the connection began to vary as the pitch of the voice was changed.

Understanding this close connection between recognizing our own voice and feeling a sense of agency can help to better understand and support those with auditory hallucinations who experience a disconnection in this link. It can also help improve our online experiences, where the voice we hear when speaking may be different than usual.

“Recently, social interaction in the virtual environment has become increasingly popular, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic broke out,” Ohata said. “If users embody avatars with a completely different appearance, these users may not experience strong self-reliance over speech if they hear a voice that doesn’t match their image of the character. This can result in a less comfortable experience for them and less effective online communication with others.”

The team’s next step will be to look at how different social situations change people’s sense of freedom of choice. According to Ohata, “One idea is to measure the power of people’s sense of agency when they tell a lie. We expect people to feel less empowered by telling a lie than telling the truth because they want to avoid taking responsibility for this action.”

Perhaps this will help us understand why people are giving out misinformation and how we can better identify and respond to it.


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