I Feel What You're Saying: Hearing With Your Skin

Meghan Holohan

Chefs know that when their dishes don't look appealing, diners think the food tastes bad. And since the mid-1970s, scientists have produced evidence that the senses work together—for example, people hear with both their eyes and ears. Bryan Gick and Donald Derrick of the University of British Columbia published a paper in Nature expanding the idea of complementary sensory cues. They found that people hear with their skin.

Participants listened to spoken syllables such as "pa" and "ta" and "da" and "ba." When humans say pa and ta, they produce a small burst of air, but do not exhale a puff of air when saying da and ba. While connected to a machine that blew tiny gusts of air onto the skin of their hands and neck, subjects heard the various sounds. When people heard da and ba accompanied by a burst of air, they believed they heard ta and pa. The puff of air—either from the machine or a human—is so slight that detection of it is subconscious. This research indicates that complementary sensing is an innate human trait.

"What's so persuasive about this particular effect," Gick told The New York Times, "is that people are picking up on this information that they don't know they are using."