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Why are we not irritated by the volume of our own voice?

Asked by Vincent Rot of Heemstede, The Netherlands

How can we stand our own shouting? After all, we're closer than anyone else to the source of the loud noise (unless we're shouting directly into their ear). So if they can't stand it, how can we?

The answer is actually fairly simple. It is related to another classic Odd Body Question: Why does my voice sound differently to others than it does to me? When we listen to our own voice, including when we shout, we are not hearing solely with our ears. We are also internally hearing a mostly liquid transmission through a series of bodily organs.

Speech begins at the larynx (voice box) from which a sound vibration emanates. Part of this vibration is conducted through the air. This part is what others hear when we speak. But another part of the vibration is directed through the various fluids and solids of our head.

Our inner and middle ears are located within caverns hollowed out of bone. In fact, this is the hardest portion of the human skull. The inner ear contains fluid, the middle ear contains air, and both are constantly pressing against each other. The larynx is also encased in soft tissue full of liquid.

Sound transmits differently through air than through solids and liquids. This difference accounts for nearly all of the tonal variations we hear compared to what others hear.

The volume of a voice depends upon many factors. One of these is the size of the resonance chamber of the upper respiratory tract. When this is constricted by a cold our voice is not as loud and sounds differently.

The skull and tissues insulate us from the volume of our own voice. Also, we project our voices away and not towards our ears. This lessens the volume of our voice that we hear. If you hold your hand in front of your mouth, your voice sounds louder since your hand reflects back the sound.

Stephen Juan, Ph.D. is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Email your Odd Body questions to s.juan@edfac.usyd.edu.au

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