To use a famous example from the realm of misheard lyrics: Jimi Hendrix's line “Excuse me while I kiss the sky” in his song “Purple Haze” is often misheard as “Excuse me while I kiss this guy.” That's because the brain is more familiar with the concept of kissing a guy rather than the sky.
This isn't just informed conjecture, either. The research team has hard data from brain scanning machines to back up the theory. Along with colleagues from the University of Cambridge and University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany, lead researchers Helen Blank and Matt Davis deployed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor the brain activity of volunteer listeners.
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The research team presented participants with pairs of written and degraded spoken words that were either identical, clearly different, or similar-sounding. Reading and hearing similar sounding words — like kick followed by pick — led to frequent misperception.
The fMRI imaging found that the misperception was associated with reduced activity in the left superior temporal sulcus, the region of the brain responsible for processing speech sounds. The results provide new evidence for the theory of predictive coding, which suggests that a good deal of speech perception involves comparing what we hear with what we expect.
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These new findings could be used to improve treatment for age-related hearing loss and to better understand auditory hallucinations in disorders such as schizophrenia.
And in the meanwhile, they serve as a helpful reminder to not believe everything that you hear.