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August 07, 2005

Science explains patriarchal monotheism!

I'm kidding of course. A recent study by Sokhia and colleagues of the University of Sheffield doesn't really explain patriarchal monotheism. However, it may help explain why schizophrenics are more likely to interpret their auditory verbal hallucinations as male voices.

Why the voices in your head are probably male

A university research team says it has discovered why most people "hearing voices" in hallucinations say they hear male voices.

Dr Michael Hunter's research at the University of Sheffield says that male voices are less complex to produce than female.

As such, when the brain spontaneously produces its own "voices", a male voice is more likely to have been generated.

Among both men and women, 71% of such "false" voices are male. [...]

Such imaginary voices are typically likely to be middle-aged and carry "derogatory" messages. [BBC]

Via Aelhswith of CogNews.

Vanessa and Amanda note that a really inept science journalist is trying to present this study as a biological excuse for sexism. In an article called Can't hear you, dear ... blame my brain, Steven McGinty presents the Sheffield results as a physiological excuse for male inattention to women:

McGinty: WHETHER it is to do the dishes, clean the car or vacuum the living room, men now have an answer to their wife's war cry that they never listen: it's not me, darling, it's my brain.
Scientists now have discovered that women's voices are more difficult for men to listen to, and process information from, than the voices of other men. [The Scottsman]

I wonder if McGinty read the original study. In fact the men did not find women's voices more difficult to listen to, or more difficult to extract information from. All the subjects had to do was listen to audio clips of people reading neutral sentences like "Open the kitchen door" and press a button indicating whether the speaker was male or female. The Sheffield team didn't even test for comprehension.

According to the introduction to the Sheffield study, male and female schizophrenics are equally likely to label their AVH as male. But their observations don't seem to explain why both men and women tend to experience their AVH as male.

I'm curious to know what other people think of these results. (Chris? Cerebrocrat? Heather?...)

The researchers note that gender voice-recognition is heavily self-referential for men decoding male voices. That is, a man's brain asks whether a voice "sounds like mine." If it does, the voice is more likely to be heard as male. The researchers don't say whether female brains use a similar self-referencing strategy to recognize female voices.

Perhaps abnormal internally-generated "voices" are simpler in both males and females and therefore less likely to contain the extra "melodic" complexity that announces a voice as female. However, if women have an analogous self-referential strategy for identifying voices, you might expect that women's internally generated signals would also be more likely to be classified as "like mine" and therefore experienced as female.

Fascinating stuff. Too bad McGinty is more interested in validating sitcom cliches than he is in reporting science.

Reference: Sokhia DS, Hunter MD, Wilkinson ID, Woodruff PWR. Male and female voices activate distinct regions in the male brain. (In press corrected proof.) NeuroImage. Available online 22 June 2005. doi:10.1016/j.jclinepi.2004.11.028 [Subscription only.]

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Comments

Is there any correction for bias due to the greater number of male schizophrenics?

Interesting. I've read articles from time to time about studies used to decide whether to use male or female voices to give instructions in stressful situations--e.g., instructions on leaving a subway car in the event of an accident (I think a male voice was used in this case) or instructions to a pilot regarding a dangerous situation in flight (and I think in this case a female voice was used). I can't find the articles now, and I'm not sure of the validity of the studies, but obviously some thought was given to whether to use a male or a female voice. FWIW, in the navigation system on a Prius we recently got, the direction instructions are announced in a female voice.

I have commented mostly on Amanda's blog. I am at home so cannot access my school library online to get the article. Can you send it to me?

Coturnix, I sent you a copy of the .pdf.

If anyone else wants a copy, you didn't get it from me! (nudge, nudge)

Wow, does this mean that Julian Jaynes was right after all? Wacky!

Don't forget that bipolars hear voices when they are in high mania....

I have a weird experience with this. I'll be talking to or following someone (e.g. my wife) when I "hear" them say something. When I respond or ask them to repeat it, they give me a strange look. "I didn't say anything." Oh.

I don't know if I am interpreting other noises in the environment as words or what.

As for your theory: it sounds reasonable to me. Many people receive "directions" from their voices which they follow (sometimes to their peril). I wouldn't dismiss the patriarchy theory, however. The male voice is the voice of authority. Or maybe the predilection towards male voices explains why God is thought to be male?

I conclude with the words "I am no scientist". I just follow it. Perhaps a different sampling in a different country might yield different proportions. If so, things get interesting....

Is there any correction for bias due to the greater number of male schizophrenics?

Good question. I assumed that the statistic was another way of saying that that the incidence of male-voiced AVH was equal in male and female schizophrenics, but I could be wrong. Anyone know?

It would be interesting to know whether schizophrenic AVH have the same breakdown of attributed gender compared to other conditions where people hear voices: bipolar, Parkinson's, etc.

I have a mild form of temporal lobe epilepsy which, when untreated, causes auditory hallucinations. The voice is always male, usually very deep (think Barry White). Fortunately the meds are very effective, so I don't have to listen to Barry saying inane things at inconvenient times.

Just an anecdote, but that means we're only one more anecdote away from *data* :-)

Andrew, one of the interesting connections between epileptics and sufferers of mood disorders is that some of the same drugs (e.g. Lamictal, Depakote) can work both as mood stabilizers and seizure preventatives.

The temporal lobe is one area where bipolar mood swings seem to be triggered. Stroke victims with damage to this area may deny that there is anything wrong with them -- which is also characteristic of people in mania.

Anyways, I think I'd take Barry White over Barry Manilow any day.

Lindsay: I'll do an informal poll at my support group on Tuesday and see what people say.

When I read this, I started to hear voices that matched the description:

male...middle aged...derogatory message...

I thought I was becoming schizophrenic, until I realized that I had the radio tuned to the local "hot talk" station.

Regarding McGinty, is it possible that he's commenting on an aspect of the study that wasn't covered by the BBC article? Regardless, it's almost always a bad idea to try to generate chuckles when you do science reporting, as the tendency is to overstate or misread the importance of the data.

One last thing...while there have been a lot of studies done as to whether it's better to use a male or female voice for warning systems, there doesn't seem to be any consensus. On aircraft, for example, some use female voices, and others use male.

You guys and your talk of "lobes" and "hallucinations." Satan is male. Nuff said.

Regarding McGinty, is it possible that he's commenting on an aspect of the study that wasn't covered by the BBC article?

Nope, I read the original article in NeuroImage and it's just not about what McGinty implies.

Lindsay,

You shouldn't have backed down so quickly from the claim in the title. (Wink-y emoticon).

Joel - I'm on Lamictal, which is *GREAT* - I hope that the company that came up with it makes shitloads of money. The difficult thing about having a neurological disorder is that it makes it hard to figure out just how f*cked up you are since the part that figures stuff out is the part that's busted.

gswift - If Falwell is to be believed the Antichrist is a Jewish male who is alive today. Could be Al Franken. Or Jonah Goldberg.

I've spent a lot of time interviewing people with hallucinations d/t various psychiatric disorders. The interviews are structured, with all the questions asked the same way of all participants. I'd have to say that male voices predominate as hallucinations (although why middle aged? I'd think it would be hard to distinguish between ages of 20-60 in most cases, unless that's what they're using as "middle-aged -- unless the patient identifies a specific person whose voice is being heard).

And more of my patients have tended to label what's being said as "scary" or "satanic" rather than "derogatory", although a few patients do find the voices "comforting" or even "angelic".

Interesting, but the explanation may have more to do with the derogatory/scary nature of the comments than any voice qualities.

I think I would want Kathleen Turner's voice telling me what a super day it was going to be, rather than Stephen Baldwin telling me that I suck.

A few times, when badly sleep deprived, I've had auditory hallucinations, and it was usually either snatches of music or female voices. But, I'm a freak.

Andrew: Hey, I do Lamictal, too! And I agree! It's a great maintenance drug! No side effects like some of the other stuff I am on and no deep depressions or wild mixed moods like I used to get.

Gordo: I don't need talk radio. I got the voices. Sometimes. :)

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