Scrawny? Buff? You May Hear Sounds Differently

By Boonsri Dickinson | April 27, 2009 6:24 pm

skinny.jpgPeople may perceive sound differently, depending on how in shape they are. Researchers have previously shown that women respond to oncoming noise sooner than men, supporting the view that stronger people require less time to react to impending danger. In the latest study from Ohio, scientists say that response time is not based on someone’s gender, height, or weight, but instead, relies on how fit a person is.

“This is the first evidence that our motor system and the perception of looming sounds evolved together,” John Neuhoff, an evolutionary psychologist at the College of Wooster and lead researcher on the study, told DISCOVER. Neuhoff tested 50 people, ranging from college students to 43-year-old couch potatoes, for strength and cardiovascular fitness. He categorized his subjects based on their fitness level, measuring their pulse rate for 60 seconds after they marched for three minutes.

The subjects were then put into an isolated room and asked to push a button when they thought a sound was in front of them. The tests sounds were emitted from 300 feet away and approached the participants at 50 feet per second—so they took about 6 seconds to reach the subjects’ ears. (Emitted at 400 hertz, the noises sounded like the middle tone of a piano rather than a fire alarm).

Almost everyone in the study pushed the button before they should have, but the people who performed poorly on the fitness test pressed the button tens of milliseconds sooner than the ones who performed well.

The not-so-fit people responded more quickly to approaching sounds because they would need more time to flee an approaching predator, Neuhoff hypothesized. But the theory leaves plenty of holes: What about people who are predisposed to physical weakness but become very physically fit? Does their hearing change along with their benchpress numbers?

Related Content:
DISCOVER: Vital Signs
DISCOVER: Noise and Senses

Image: flickr/ Bobshaw Pete

MORE ABOUT: evolution, fitness, noise
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