Psychology Dept. research shows senses cooperate

Sara Peck

Mistaking a deep-voiced woman for a man might be embarrassing, but it also proves a neurological theory.

Northwestern psychology graduate student Eric Smith collaborated with psychology professors Satoru Suzuki and Marcia Grabowecky to investigate the connection between voice pitch and gender recognition. Their research culminated last month when the findings, “Auditory-Visual Cross-Modal Integration in Perception of Face Gender,” were published in science journal Current Biology.

“It was a pretty simple-minded experiment,” Smith said. “I really wanted to scientifically relate to something that we all experience.”

Smith and fellow researchers tested 300 subjects for an hour each, monitoring their responses to androgynous faces and the pitch of various beeps. The participants were asked if they thought the face was male or female based on the sounds they heard.

“Humans have really strong categorical distinctions,” Smith said. “Our senses blend together.”

Any human experience, such as meeting a new person or touching a piece of fabric, represents a merger of multiple sensory experiences in the brain, Grabowecky said.

“There’s a growing interest in neuroscience about how all aspects of our perception of the world fit together,” Grabowecky said. “We form an integrated response of who someone is, though the brain and the body treat them quite separately.”

Smith received his Ph.D. in June and now teaches social psychology at NU, but the theories are still being investigated despite Smith’s graduation, Grabowecky said.

A research team of Grabowecky, Suzuki, fellow NU professor of neurobiology and physiology Nina Kraus and NU psychology graduate student Parkson Leung is continuing to investigate the speed and location of sensory response and voice recognition in the brain.

“Right now we are researching how quickly information from each sensory modality is processed and influences perception,” Grabowecky said.

She said the research would focus on the relationship between voice and age recognition, such as during a telephone conversation, as well as the location and speed of information processing.

“I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out,” Smith said of his colleagues’ proposed study.

Smith also expressed interest in expanding the research further, such as relating smells and gender perception.

He also hopes to tackle scientific research that lies near and dear to the hearts of NU students.

“It might be interesting to explore the beer-goggle effect,” Smith said.

Reach Sara Peck at [email protected]