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
  • scott

    um, was this room filled with something other than air? ’cause last i checked, the normal speed of sound in air was about 340 m/s…

    (also, mixing feet and meters, in the same sentence no less… kinda weird…)

  • http://jonofscience.wordpress.com JonP

    I’m pretty sure the source of the sound (virtual, I’m assuming) was moving towards them at 50 ft/s rather than the actual waves themselves. Simply emitting a sound from a stationary source 300 ft away wouldn’t have accomplished much.

  • http://www.swmm2000.com red

    In the original article the sound was moving 50 ft/s towards the participants

    “In the study, participants were made to listen to a tone moving toward them and they had to press a button when they thought the sound had arrived directly in front of them.”

    It was a moving sound source.

  • http://www.threeaunties.org/ Maria Minno

    Very cool.

    Here’s an idea: People who are unhealthy often have depleted adrenal glands. This causes hyper vigilance, which results in hitting the button sooner.

  • Paul

    Typical neo-Darwinian BS. I hypothesize Neuhoff designed this study to achieve the results he “discovered”, thus hoping to secure a grant from some like-minded organization. The most LIKELY conclusion from the results is that the human body/mind is DESIGNED to be more efficient when it is properly nourished and maintained — all systems work better when you’re healthy. DUH.

  • Shane M

    “tens of milliseconds?”

    is this significant enough time to even draw a conclusion?

  • Pingback: “Seeing” Sounds and “Hearing” Food: The Science of Synesthesia | Discoblog | Discover Magazine()

  • Cheslea

    I would have guessed otherwise before I read this article. You would think that people that are more physically fit would have a faster reaction time. But, it makes sense.

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