Voice Blindness

A really good friend of mine just called my mobile from a number I didn’t recognise. Said friend has been out of the country travelling for the last three months, and I wasn’t anticipating the call. He didn’t say who it was when he called in order to ‘surprise me’, but expecting me to recognise his voice, then jokingly (I hope) taking offense when I didn’t and asked him if it was someone else. The someone else I thought it might be was another old, male friend that I rarely hear from. Both friends are about the same age (mid to late 30s), both friends are smokers, both friends are male, both friends are dear to me. One friend is originally from near Glasgow, the other friend is originally from near Middlesbrough, but both friends have been living in the Midlands/South East for most of their adult lives. In short, I knew that I knew the voice, I just couldn’t pin down whose voice it was, not even after he told me his name (I appreciate that this sounds as though I’m a really bad friend, but I’ve known this guy for years and love him like a brother – that’s why it’s flummoxed me!)… and it left me wondering if I knew that I knew it because I recognised it, or if I just thought that I must know it because of the familiar way that I was being spoken to!?

This wasn’t the first time that I haven’t recognised someone’s voice over the phone. I’m a busy person, I get a lot of calls, I’m not always (in fact rarely) thinking about the caller when they call, so I’ve previously stamped my feet and thought it rude, arrogant and presumptuous that people should expect me to know who they are without introducing themselves when they call.

However, this train of thought made me think that perhaps it’s not their problem… it could be mine. Do other people instantly recognise voices over the phone, I wondered? Having quite an acute sense of smell, being an artist, and naturally analytical I find that I have quite hyper-real experiences from time to time, when I really indulge myself in a sensory experience, and I love it.

Though it’s commonly recognised that animals use their senses in different ways to humans in a survival of the fittest in their given environment, evolutionary fashion – moles are blind (or as good as), but they have an incredibly well-developed sense of touch, birds of prey have amazing eye-sight (my Dad’s nickname for me as a child was Hawk Eye) but a poor sense of smell, whilst dogs tend to have a great sense of smell, but have less well-developed hearing etc. My other half is always bemoaning the sound levels that I set the TV at, I claim that I enjoy the cinematic, immersive experience… but is it more that we’re wired in a different way. Is his hearing more finely tuned than mine? Is hearing my weak sense? Well, I don’t think it is, it’s not that I don’t hear things, I do, and I love listening to music. However, I wonder if some people, myself included, might have faulty / lesser developed sonic recognition synapses?

**Cue some Googling**

A paper in the journal Science describes this difficulty in differentiating between voices as voice blindness and goes on to describe how Impaired phonological processing is characteristic of dyslexia and thought to be a basis for difficulty in learning to read. This figures, and from a personal perspective, whilst I have no problems reading and writing now, I did when I was a child (my spelling was atrocious). This would also explain the frustration of a man in a supermarket recently whose first language wasn’t English and hadn’t a clue what I was asking for when I inquired as to where the nuts are (he recognised nuts in a southern accent ‘na(soft a)ts’ but he didn’t recognise my guttural, vowelly ‘nUts’ – getting nowhere I temporarily cast off my upbringing, went received pronunciation on him… and left the supermarket with a packet of peanuts. What I’m getting at, is that there’s no denying that, depending on accent and inflection, the same words can sound incredibly different (take the word garage for example), and English is a difficult language with so many phonetic tricks at play between the written and spoken word… but I digress.

What I was left wondering after this phone conversation is if I over-compensate for my poor phoneme sound library by looking and/or smelling harder; and if, in doing this, I am not exercising my phoneme muscle sufficiently!?

Interestingly, my Mum has a very distinctive voice. Having grown up with it, I’m not entirely sure what it is about it that makes it so distinctly Alma, it’s just ‘Mum’s voice’ but other people tell me, and her, how distinctive it is. To a lesser extent, I too have been told that I have a very distinctive voice, and an extremely distinctive laugh. Mum and I are both frequently told that our voices can be heard above the hubbub of a crowded room. Again, I’m pretty oblivious to this fact, and I think she is too, we just talk…. but we don’t sound particularly similar (I don’t think!). Does my brother have a distinctive voice? Not particularly I don’t think. He has an irritating (in my opinion) habit of morphing his voice according to who he’s talking to – vocal replication – I’m sure he never has any problems finding nuts in a supermarket! Thinking about it now, I wonder what kind of a weird voice my unborn baby might have when it pops out in a couple of months time, or if I’ll even recognise it!

Mum’s been told that she’s tone deaf, I used to tell her that it was her embarrassing singing in church that made me into an atheist (this isn’t the reason – I was just a mean child!), people have since told her that there is no such thing as being tone deaf. Well, it sounds as though there might be, and I wonder if it’s inherited!? There’s a few interesting words on this subject on the BBC World Service website 14minutes 17seconds into one of their Science in Action programmes – details below:

“Dyslexia is usually considered to be a reading disorder, when the brain does not recognise some symbols properly. It can lead to problems with understanding the written world. Now, brand new research in Science magazine shows that dyslexics may also have problems identifying voices. The BBC’s Jennifer Carpenter tells us about the findings.”

In short, it would seem that very little is known about voice blindness or phonagnosia (as it was formally called)… but I reckon I might have it, not badly, but a little bit – at least, that’s what I’m going tell my friend who called earlier!