Our brains play all sorts of tricks on us, and here is one with some disturbing real-world implications. An experiment back in the 1990s, revisited this week by Brain Decoder, found that people will sometimes imagine hearing a foreign accent where one does not actually exist. What’s more, people subsequently report having a harder time remembering what the person with the (again, imaginary!) foreign accent said.
Here’s the gist of that study. Researchers asked college students at the University of Georgia to listen to an audio recording of an American-accented voice. The twist: Some of the students were shown a picture of a white professor and were told the voice belonged to her. Others were presented with a photo of a professor who was of Asian descent. Everything else about the photos were identical, including their dress and hairstyle, and the audio was exactly the same, too.
And yet something weird happened when the researchers asked the students about what they’d heard. In the condition with the picture of the Asian woman, the students reported that the woman spoke with a foreign accent, and they were also less likely to remember details from her lecture than those who’d been told they’d been listening to a talk delivered by a Caucasian professor. Again: It was the exact same voice. Summarizing the findings to Brain Decoder, researcher Donald Rubin explained, “Basically, it showed that it’s possible for people to hallucinate a foreign accent.”
The study was replicated earlier this year, and Canadian researchers confirmed those earlier findings. Whether you know it or not, you are very likely judging a speaker’s voice by his or her appearance.