The Frontal Cortex

All in the Mind

I recently had the pleasure of getting interviewed by Natasha Mitchell, host of All in the Mind. To be honest, I can’t bear to listen to the interview – the sound of my own voice grates against my ears, like fingernails on a chalkboard.*

I know others have a similar aversion. But why is that? I don’t mind looking at visual reflections (photographs) of myself, and yet auditory reflections make me wince. It’s worth pointing out that, until the 20th century, humans had never heard recordings of their voice. While we’ve always had visual reflections – Narcissus looked in the still water – capturing the sound of your voice as others hear it requires modern technology. Is the brain evolutionarily unprepared for a self-reflection in sound? Or is my voice just particularly annoying?

*Part of the problem, at least for me, is that I had a bad stutter growing up. When I listen to myself talk, I can still hear those places in the sentence where my stutter is trying to reassert itself. Even if I don’t stutter, I always sound, at least to my ears, like I’m about to start.


  1. #1 Colst
    February 10, 2008

    We also only see ourselves in reflections and photographs, so what we see in them doesn’t clash with what we think we look like.

    We can hear ourselves speak, but that is somewhat altered from what everyone else hears, so when we hear ourselves in a recording, it sounds foreign.

    Even with pictures, we like pictures that are mirror images of ourselves more than pictures that are the proper orientation, I think because we are more familiar with our face in a reflection than in a photograph.

  2. #2 ofg
    February 10, 2008

    “We also only see ourselves in reflections and photographs, so what we see in them doesn’t clash with what we think we look like.

    We can hear ourselves speak, but that is somewhat altered from what everyone else hears, so when we hear ourselves in a recording, it sounds foreign.”

    Wow, I never thought of it that way.

  3. #3 Person
    February 10, 2008

    You could get all philosophical about this or you could think about the way in which we actually hear or own voice. We not only hear our voice from the outside world but also resonating from the interior of our body outwards – causing the bones and various parts of the auditory system to resonate. Others don’t hear this nor do we if we’re listening to our voice obviously we don’t either.

  4. #4 Person
    February 10, 2008

    oops.. that last sentence is supposed to say:

    Others don’t hear this nor do we if we’re listening to a recording of our own voice.

  5. #5 Paradigm
    February 10, 2008

    I think most people are uncomfortable with hearing their own voice because the voice tells so much about a person. Hearing it without the distraction of making conversation makes people feel naked and vulnerable.

  6. #6 tt
    February 10, 2008

    What might Walt Whitman have to say of this phenomena?

  7. #7 arlo
    February 10, 2008

    echoes are auditory reflections (if somewhat distorted) and people have been yelling in caves for longer that i’ve been around. so, i disagree with your statement about modern technologies being needed to capture our voices as others hear them …

    to the point though, i think plenty of radio broadcasters really enjoy their voices and your particular wincing is a lot more like those first pubic hairs that leave us uncomfortable and questioning.

  8. #8 Elizabeth
    February 10, 2008

    I wonder if part of the problem of listening to yourself is that you already know what you are going to say / hear. Perhaps there is some sort of audio (delay) forward feedback problem. Perhaps there is a certain amount of boredom.

  9. #9 Rachael
    February 11, 2008

    >>I don’t mind looking at visual reflections (photographs) of myself

    I think many people actually do dislike seeing photographs of themselves. One time I was at a wedding and the groom, knowing I was into photography and had brought my camera and lenses, asked me to take some candid shots of everyone. The groom’s mother became very (irrationally) upset when I pointed the camera at her, as in, “Don’t every take a photograph of me. Please delete that. I am very upset that you did that.” I can tell you that this particular instance had nothing to do with cultural beliefs, and heck, the groom himself was a professional photographer. In my limited experience of taking photographs of people, less than 10% are truly candid in front of a camera, and unless it’s a super flattering shot, ~50% dislike their own photos.

    I think the difference between seeing one’s own image and hearing one’s own voice is that in the case of the image we can blame it on the instrument. Taking a good photograph of a person under the right lighting conditions with a natural expression can be tricky, and people know this fact. The camera “lies”. It’s just as easy, with the help of photoshop or good makeup, to look better on camera than in person. The voice, on the other hand? There’s no instrument interpreting things, and there is almost nothing we can do modify this aspect of ourselves, so we must accept our voices exactly as they are.

  10. #10 Ellen
    February 11, 2008

    You always sound great on Radio Lab. 😉

  11. #11 Ellen
    February 11, 2008

    Jad (Radiolab’s host) and I have often referred to that feeling of hearing your own voice as ‘The Self-Loathing.’ We both have bad cases of it. But our title for it, doesn’t really get at the cause. I suspect it’s an ‘“uncanny valley” sort of thing. When you hear yourself, it sounds uncannily like you – but not *exactly* as you hear your own voice from within your own cranial resonance chamber. It’s that distance which sends the shivers up your spine.

  12. #12 Amy Carlson
    February 11, 2008

    Yes, but we do hear ourselves. We’ve always been able to hear ourselves much more easily than we are able to see ourselves. We’ve been hearing ourselves forever in our own heads. Whereas we don’t see ourselves except in a recording so to speak – that being a mirror or a picture or what have you. We only see ourselves some of the time but we are hearing ourselves as we speak all the time. (Especially those of us who talk a lot.) So the recording, which sounds so false, is jarring because it doesn’t sound at all like what we hear in our own heads.

    Like when I sing with the radio, man does it sound good to me, just like what’s coming out of the speakers. My kids say, “not so much.”

  13. #13 OutOfContext
    February 14, 2008

    Putting aside your self-consciousness, it’s a fantastic interview and Natasha seemed quite taken with you…and your age. I’ve been listening to that podcast for a good year now and should be of general interests to readers of this blog. You and Natasha Mitchell are doing great work bringing this kind of insight to the unscientific like me.

  14. #14 Cris
    February 16, 2008

    The Feb. 10 comment by “Person” seems to address the point. Our unrecorded voice is both amplified and muffled by our mouth, pharynx, sinuses etc., and conducted through the flesh and bone of our head, so that it sounds richer and deeper than our recorded voice, which displays the breathier, higher pitched qualities and overtones of our voice. When we hear our recorded voice, especially for the first time, it can be a jarringly unfamiliar experience. With continued exposure, we usually become more accepting of the sound.

    I looked online for acoustic or neuropsych studies of thia apparently common phenomenon, but couldn’t find any.

  15. #15 Aaron
    February 21, 2008

    Your distaste is partially subconscious and you probably will never know all the reasons. The Question is what do we choose to believe about yourselves. The journey of loving and accepting stuttering in your youth is as good as it gets.Use that digital recorder or switch on the mic, have fun with it.

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