We learn to speak even before we realize or remember that we are learning it. At a very young age, by listening and imitating those around us, we say our first words and then quickly fill out our vocabulary to better communicate.
What we also learn to do, something that is almost human alone is to vary the pitch of our speech to add a deeper level of meaning to our words. These unique speech fluctuations can add to the richness of language and have recently been the subject of study at the University of San Francisco.
How we create the “music of speech”
In a recent study published June 28, 2018, in Cell, Benjamin Dichter, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher, senior author Edward F. Chang, MD, professor of neurological surgery and member of the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences, Jonathan D. Breshears, MD, and Matthew K. Leonard, PhD, also of UCSF joined together to uncover how the brain controls fluctuations in speech.
The team found that while one part of the brain controls the muscles needed to produce the sounds that makeup speech, it is another area entirely that controls the fluctuations in the voice. Findings came thanks to volunteers undergoing a specialized surgery to remove brain tissue that causes seizures in patients with epilepsy. In some cases, in preparation for this surgery, high-density arrays of tiny electrodes are placed onto the surface of the patients’ brains. To gather data for the research on speech fluctuations, these volunteers fitted with electrodes were asked to read a series of sentences and brain activity was analyzed as they read.
This discovery of another area of the brain controlling speech fluctuation could be a breakthrough finding for those unable to speak. The research team is now looking to the future and the possibility of creating a brain prosthetic that could one day turn thoughts into speech.
“Understanding how we speak goes far beyond just knowing where speech functions are localized in the brain. Even more important is to understand how brain cells actually encode the command signals for the muscles of the mouth and throat that make speech possible,” said Chang.
Hearing loss and voice fluctuations
As incredible as our ability to fluctuate our voice may be, hearing and understanding this added layer of speech can be more difficult for those with hearing loss. Especially when background noise is involved. The good news is that with some smart strategies and the use of our other senses, we can still understand conversations and communicate effectively.
If you’ve been diagnosed with hearing loss and have purchased hearing aids, work with your hearing healthcare provider to ensure they are fitted well and adjusted to your needs. Most importantly, be sure to wear them throughout the day to better hear conversations and changing tones in speech.
Voice fluctuations are only one part of the communication puzzle. When listening, watch for other cues such as hand and facial gestures or other body language. Our brains compile all the data to come up with a more complete meaning of what we’re hearing. If some quieter nuances are missed, chances are there are other cues to help convey the conversation.
Actively listen by asking questions. Not only do questions help you actively engage with the speaker, but they also help you get the most accurate information and meaning from what’s being said.
If you believe you’re missing the more subtle voice fluctuations in conversations, you may have hearing loss. Contact our office to schedule a hearing evaluation today.