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I love home movies. I was lucky to grow up during the years where parents lugged gigantic, boxy camcorders over their shoulders to document our first toddles and words, and I recently reveled in watching myself grow up when my mom transferred all our old tapes to DVD.
I reveled, that is, until home-movie-me hit the teenage years—and then I cringed. Ugh…is that actually what my voice sounds like?
Yes, it is, unfortunately—and it’s what everyone else hears, too. So why does my recorded voice sound so unfamiliar to me?
Sound can enter our ears in one of two ways: air-conducted or bone-conducted.
Air-conducted sound—listening to a recording of oneself speaking, for example—is transmitted through the eardrums, vibrating three bony ossicles (malleus, incus and stapes) and terminating in the cochlea. The cochlea, a fluid-filled spiral structure, converts these vibrations into nerve impulses to be interpreted in the brain.
What we hear when we speak, however, is both air- and bone-conducted sounds. With bone-conducted sounds, vibrations from our vocal cords directly reach the cochlea. Our skulls deceive us by, in fact, lowering the frequency of these vibrations along the way, which is why we often perceive ourselves as higher-pitched when we listen to a recording.
“When [someone] listens to a recording of their voice speaking, the bone-conducted pathway that they consider part of their ‘normal’ voice is eliminated, and they hear only the air-conducted component in unfamiliar isolation—what everybody else actually hears,” says Dr. Chris Chang, an otolaryngologist at Fauquier Ear, Nose & Throat Consultants in Warrenton, Virginia.
That explains why we perceive our voices differently, but why do we dislike what we hear?
It’s kind of the same way we like what we see in the mirror, but not what we see in photographs.
We grow up getting used to all of our asymmetries as reflected in the mirror—parting our hair to the left, the little mole on our right cheek, that chip in our left incisor. When we see a photo of ourselves, all of these tiny differences don’t match up with what our brain expects to see, so we dislike it.
Likewise, we live our lives hearing and perfecting our bone-conducted, but not air-conducted, voices.
“We never actually hear our voice like other people hear it, hence our surprise when hearing a recording,” says Pascal Belin, a professor of psychology at University of Glasgow whose research focuses on vocal perception. “We find it hard to believe it is actually our voice.”
Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep, and Denzel Washington reportedly don’t watch their own movies. Maybe they’re perfectionists. Perhaps they over-analyze their performances.
Me? I’d watch my films—muted, with subtitles.