Breathing position and the perception of consonants
Several theories of speech perception and acquisition suggest a role for the motor system in auditory processing. One class of these theories suggests that motor information plays an especially important role when auditory speech processing is noisy, ambiguous, or otherwise hard to process. Empirical studies exploring this hypothesis have often demanded that experimental participants move their articulators in speech-like ways when perceiving, but here, we design an experiment in which participants are asked--in a more implicit manner--to maintain an articulatory position while perceiving speech.
Our manipulation involved breathing through either the mouth or nose, which necessarily changes the position of the velum (up or down). In this study, we examined the perception of consonant sounds as experimental participants breathed through the nose or mouth. Speech sounds where presented to native French speakers, and involved either an experimental condition, in which the sounds differed mainly with respect to the position of the velum (/ada/ or /ana/), or a control condition, in which the sounds differed mainly with respect to the position of the tongue (/ada/ or /aga/). Results suggested that breathing through the nose affected speech categorization in the experimental condition, such that more ambiguous sounds were perceived as /ana/ than in the mouth condition. No such differences were seen in the control condition.
These results support the notion that implicit, and very subtle motor information can affect auditory speech identification, particularly when the speech sounds are ambiguous. This supports classes of speech processing theories that incorporate forward models in the motor system (i.e., when the motor system creates expectations about the sensory consequences of an action). Our data suggest that the simple act of breathing through the nose or mouth can create subtle expectations about whether an ambiguous speech sound is heard as a /d/ or /n/.
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