At the University of Washington, Neel Bhatt is an assistant professor of otolaryngology. This article first appeared on The Conversation.
I frequently record my patients speaking as a surgeon who specializes in treating people with vocal difficulties. These recordings are helpful to me. They allow me to follow minor changes in their voices from a visit to visit, allowing me to determine if surgery or voice treatment improved their voices.
Nonetheless, I’m astonished by how challenging these sessions may be for my patients. When they hear their voice repeated back to them, many people get noticeably uncomfortable.
Wincing, they question aloud, “Do I sound like that?”
(Of course, you do.)
Some people grow so agitated that they refuse to listen to the tape at all, let alone go over the tiny changes I’d want to point out.
The discomfort we feel when we hear our voices on recordings is most likely due to a combination of physiology and psychology.
For starters, the sound from an audio recording is conveyed to your brain differently than the sound you make when you talk.
Sound flows through the air and into your ears when you listen to a recording of your voice, which is known as “air conduction.” The eardrum and tiny ear bones quiver in response to sound. The sound vibrations are subsequently sent to the cochlea, which excites nerve axons, eventually transferring the auditory information to the brain.
When you talk, though, the sound of your voice travels to the inner ear differently. While some sound is carried by air conduction, the most sound is internally carried straight via the bones of your skull. When you talk, you hear your voice owing to a combination of external and internal conduction, with internal bone conduction boosting the lower frequencies.
As a result, when individuals talk, they believe their voice to be deeper and more prosperous. In comparison, the recorded voice might sound thinner and higher-pitched, which many people find repulsive.
There’s another reason why hearing a recording of your voice is so unsettling. It’s a fresh voice, one that reveals a gap between your self-perception and reality. This mismatch can be problematic since your voice is distinct and a vital part of your self-identity. You suddenly understand that others have been hearing something different all along.
Although we may appear to others to sound more like our recorded voice, I believe the reason so many of us squirm when we hear it is not because the recorded voice is inherently worse than our perceived voice. We’re simply more accustomed to hearing ourselves speak in a specific way.
In a 2005 research, people with vocal issues were asked to score their voices after hearing recordings of them. The agents were also rated by therapists. The researchers discovered that patients tended to give their recorded voices a lower rating compared to professionals’ objective judgments.
So, if the voice in your brain berates the voice on the other end of a recording device, it’s most likely your inner critic overreacting—and you’re judging yourself too severely.