Can You 'Hear' Through the Skin?

Study Shows Some Sounds Produce Air Bursts That Provide Tactile Clues for Hearing

ByBill Hendrick
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

Nov. 25, 2009 -- Eyes as well as ears help us understand what others are saying, but so does our skin, a new study suggests.

Researchers report in the journal Nature that people can detect tactile clues such as airflow -- made by sounds -- through the skin. The study helps us piece together a fuller picture of what we hear.

Bryan Gick of the University of British Columbia writes that some sounds like "pa" and "ta" produce small inaudible "aspirated" bursts of air. This helps us integrate tactile information into what we hear, similar to visual information being integrated into what we hear.

But some syllables such as "ba" and "da" can be misheard as "pa" and "ta" when small bursts of air are simultaneously squirted onto the skin from a compressor, the researchers report.

In a study involving 22 people, researchers say, syllables such as "ba" and "da" were perceived as "pa" and "ta" when uttered in conjunction with air bursts.

This finding, they say, is important, because it could prove useful in the future development of audio and telecommunication aids for the hearing impaired.

Gick says the study shows that "perceivers integrate event-relevant tactile information in auditory perception in much the same way as they do visual perception."

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SOURCES: News release, Nature.

Gick, B. Nature, Nov. 26, 2009; vol 462.

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