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Why do we hate the sound of our own voice?

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Neel Bhatt, a UW assistant professor of otolaryngology, specializes in treating patients with voice problems. Through his work, he began to realize people did not like the sound of their own voices. With the transition to school over Zoom, many students can relate to the discomfort of hearing their own voice on recordings of projects or lectures. Bhatt explains this phenomena as a mix of psychology and physiology.

Otolaryngology, often known as ear, nose, and throat (ENT), includes many subspecialties. According to Bhatt, whose specialty is laryngology (the study of the throat), around 30-40% of his patients have problems with their voices. These patients could be performers, such as singers, or people in other professions that require them to use their voices a lot, such as lawyers or teachers.

These people come to the UW Medical Clinic to seek help for problems with their voice, such as vocal cord overuse, and one way to ensure that they are making progress is to record their voices. 

“With every clinic visit, we often record the person’s voice so we can play it back next time,” Bhatt said. “If we do some kind of treatment, or surgery, or therapy, it’s good to record what it was three months ago.”

Many people can be squeamish when hearing their own voice, especially since it sounds different on a recording than when they are speaking.

In terms of physiology, the way sound travels through your ear is different when you are speaking than when you are listening to a recording. According to Bhatt, when you speak, sound comes out of your mouth and goes into your ear through air conduction. However, some of it transmits internally, bypassing the eardrum and your ear bones and vibrating directly. When people hear a recording, they only hear the air conduction, not the internal bone conduction, which causes differences in how the voice sounds

Without the internal conduction, the voice generally tends to be thinner-sounding and higher pitched, and does not have the richness that people hear when they speak.

Psychologically, it can be jarring to hear your voice on a recording because it is not what you are used to. The brain creates an idea of what the voice should sound like, and it can be disconcerting to realize that it may not be what it actually sounds like. 

Having people listen to their own recording can be crucial in medical cases such as the ones Bhatt deals with.

To get the patient’s opinion on how their voice sounds, Bhatt uses the voice handicap index-10 (VHI10), which is a series of 10 questions that asks the patient to rate their voice on a scale of 1-4 for various different qualities. The score is out of 40, and as the overall score decreases, it means that the patient is doing better. 

“Sure, you perceive your voice differently than the recording of your voice, but ultimately it's really important that we listen to the patient as well,” Bhatt said. “It's not that we think the patient doesn't know what his or her voice is like. I think it's important to really try to understand the subtleties of their voice and also for the patient to listen to them too.”

Reach writer Taylor Bruce at Twitter: @Tay1or_marie9

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