‘Voice-Blindness’ Is Like Face-Blindness for Your Ears

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Photo: Vintage Images/Getty Images

Before Caller ID, a telephonic signal of a close friendship was to simply say, “It’s me,” when the other person picked up the phone. Good friends recognize each other’s voices; no identification necessary. Surprisingly, though, this does not appear to be a universal skill. New research sheds light on the prevalence of so-called “phonagnosia,” or voice-blindness — that is, the inability to recognize familiar voices. Much like its close companion face-blindness, voice-blindness is not as rare as you might assume.

You’re probably at least a little familiar with face-blindness, otherwise known as prosopagnosia, as it’s received an increasing amount of research attention — and, subsequently, press attention — in recent years. The famed neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, for instance, once wrote about “almost bumping into a large bearded man” — until, that is, he realized that what he’d actually almost bumped into was a mirror. Initially, scientists thought prosopagnosia was extremely rare, and could only be triggered by brain damage. But newer research has revealed that it affects around 2 percent of the population, and that people can be born with it.

The research and press coverage on voice-blindness is slowly starting to catch up, as Christian Jarrett reports this week for BPS Research Digest. From the few who’ve spoken publicly about phonagnosia, we know that it can lead to difficulties talking on the phone and distinguishing between voices when two people are talking at the same time. As you might imagine, this can lead to all manner of awkward situations.

Steve Royster, for example, realized he had voice-blindness when he was 27 years old. His boss, he said, would regularly ring him and bark orders down the phone, but Royster had no idea who was calling. A later conversation with a colleague about this revealed to Royster that it was completely normal to be able to recognize who they were speaking to on the phone, a claim that took Royster several days to accept. But since accidentally having a heated phone call with a woman he thought was his wife (but was, in fact, some other woman), Royster now makes sure he knows for sure who he’s talking to.

Like face-blindness, voice-blindness was also initially (and incorrectly) thought to be solely caused by brain damage and strokes, and thought to be really rare. The first-ever known case of phonagnosia where the sufferer was born with the condition only came to light in 2008. But now, in the largest study of its kind, researchers at the University of Southern California have shed much-needed light on the mysterious condition. First, they selected 730 participants, who were shown photographs of 100 famous people, and were asked if their voices were familiar to them. The most-recognized 50 celebrities were chosen for the test.

The participants were then shown up to four celebrity faces at one time, accompanied by two short audio clips of someone speaking. One voice belonged to one of the celebrities pictured, and the other was the voice of an unknown, nonfamous person matched to the celebrity on sex, race, age, and accent. They were asked to identify which voice matched the face. The study volunteers were next asked to choose five more celebrities, and try to imagine their voices. They were also told to imagine other sounds, such as breaking glass, to help establish if they couldn’t imagine sounds very well generally, or if it was just voices they struggled with.

In the end, participants correctly matched 77 percent of the celebrities with their voices on average. And, not surprisingly, they were better at recognizing the voices of celebrities they were more familiar with. (People who scored higher were generally more familiar with the celebrities used in the test, but the researchers adjusted for this so it didn’t affect the outcomes of the study.)

But the USC scientists found that 23 people — 3.2 percent of the group — scored much lower than average. Of these, 18 admitted struggling to imagine the voices of celebrities they were familiar with, despite having no trouble imagining sounds that weren’t voices, such as the breaking glass. The researchers argue that these participants may have developmental phonagnosia, meaning that they were born with an inability to recognize familiar voices, and that the deficit was not the result of brain damage. It’s just one study, but, as Jarrett notes, it is the largest to date on the subject of voice-blindness; if these findings hold, it could mean that just over three in every 100 people will have the condition.

Over recent years, the seriousness of face-blindness has come to light through personal accounts of those who live with it. It can cause social anxiety and isolation for some who have the condition, many of whom have wanted to stay anonymous due to the vulnerability the condition can cause them. This study looks at phonagnosia on a larger scale than ever before — and just like face-blindness, could lead the way to finding out more about the lives of those suffering with it, many of whom may not even know there is a name for what they’re experiencing.