When talking about your spouse or someone you know very well, you might say “I’d know his voice anywhere.” It makes sense that people can better recognize, hear and understand the voice belonging to someone with whom they speak every day.

But new research shows that understanding your spouse’s voice can actually help you pick out the speech of another person in a crowded place with a lot of background noise. How? According to the study, done by researchers at Queen’s University in Canada and published in the August 2013 edition of Psychological Science, because you are so familiar with your spouse’s voice, you can track and ignore it when listening to another person in a crowded room.

This scenario might play out while you’re at a cocktail party or similar event: You arrive with your spouse and upon entering the noisy party, you each are engaged in conversation by a separate friend. There’s quite a lot of background noise, but you can hear three voices – those of your husband, his friend and your friend. As you converse, you think it’s annoying that you keep hearing your husband’s voice because it’s distracting. But in fact, what you are doing, though unconsciously, is tracking his voice, which helps you to ignore it so you can better make out what your friend is saying.

Researchers determined that this is the case after they tested adults in similar situations using highly familiar voice recordings combined with recordings of age- and sex-matched individuals who were strangers. When a person’s spouse’s voice was played over the recording of an unfamiliar voice, people’s performance actually improved.

Interestingly, researchers found that as people age, they are less likely to be able to make out what unfamiliar voices are saying.  Yet they are better able to hone in on spouse’s and other familiar voices.  This is consistent with what people with hearing loss often report – that they are able to discern what familiar voices say more easily than with unfamiliar voices.  As lead researcher Ingrid Johnsrude humorously points out, the findings show that older adults are not able to ignore their spouse’s voice as easily as middle-aged adults.

“Our study identifies a cognitive factor – voice familiarity – that could help older listeners to hear better in these situations,” Johnsrude said.

CapTel Captioned Telephone