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Spotlight on...Dr Kasia Pisanski

Previous Research

I started studying the voice serendipitously about 7 years ago, at the beginning of my masters. I wanted to work with a particular primatologist who was studying vocal communication in primates including humans and I fell in love with the research area immediately. 

I did my masters and PhD in Canada but lived in Cuba for 6 months, undertaking independent research.  It was one of the best experiences of my life and one of my favourite places in the world.  I then lived in California, working for UCLA for a little while and last year I lived in Poland working at the University of Wroclaw. I moved to Brighton about 10 months ago for my Marie-Skłodowska Curie Postdoc.

Current Research

Here at Sussex I work with Dr David Reby in the Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research Group, where we apply an evolutionary comparative approach to understanding how mammals communicate, including humans.  We focus on the non-linguistic features of the voice, such as pitch and timbre, and the wide range of information that these features convey. 

We judge a person a lot on their voice, how dominant and even how attractive they are. I don’t think we generally consider how much of a role the voice plays in these judgements compared to someone’s face. Yet, although the visual modality is very powerful, the sound of a person’s voice is also surprisingly influential. 

Our research attempts to understand the sorts of information that non-verbal features of the voice gives you about another person and why. For example, what a person’s voice pitch and vocal tract resonances say about their body size and hormonal state, and why this sort of vocal communication evolved in humans.

My research project is about the idea of modulating your voice in different social contexts to affect how other people might perceive you. If people know the stereotypes that are associated with certain voice qualities then they can use this to their advantage, like voice makeup.  For example, Margaret Thatcher had voice training so that she could lower her voice to sound more dominant. Indeed people often vote for politicians with a lower voice pitch as we associate this with confidence, trust, intelligence and dominance. We’ve recently shown that people can also modulate their voices to sound physically bigger or smaller. We can do this consciously, but we might also modulate our voices without being aware of it.

I’m conducting my voice modulation research in real life situations. We’re currently doing a study on speed dating.
Participants speak to each person for 6 minutes whilst wearing a microphone and at the end they 'tick' which people they might like to meet again, or not. We’re recording these speed dates and analysing the acoustic, non-verbal information.  One of the predictions is that women will speak with a higher voice pitch to men that they ticked, verses men that they didn’t.  Another is that those who receive a lot of positive ticks might have more attractive voices (lower pitch for men, higher pitch for women). 

I’m also looking at how blind persons perceive voice.
I’m working with people who have never had any sort of visual experience, and those who lost sight at some later point in their life, to test if their vocal perceptions of other people are different than those of sighted persons. It’s such an interesting way to look at how a lack of visual experience might change how voice perception develops. 

We found that blind persons, even those who hadn’t seen a body before, could accurately gauge a person’s body size from their voice.  We also did studies on perceptions of trustworthiness, competence and other personality traits gauged from a person’s voice. The studies indicated that visual experience doesn’t seem to be necessary to calibrate or affect these sorts of voice stereotypes.

We’re also looking at how peoples’ voices change over a 50 year life span, which hasn’t been done before in a single group of people.
So far we’ve studied the voices of British men throughout their lives (from age 7 to 56) using footage from the Seven Up! TV documentary (see below for a link to the study). Archival recordings are a useful tool for studying longitudinal changes. The data show that children’s voice pitch predicted their pitch as adults. If the stereotypes that we associate with low or high pitch are applied to young people, and it seems that they are, then you’re likely being labelled the same way your whole life. These findings also suggest that hormone exposure before puberty, maybe even in the womb, could have a lasting effect on a person’s voice pitch.  

We are also analysing women’s voices across pregnancy.
Preliminary analysis of the data indicates that women’s voice pitches lower after they’ve had their first child. We’re unsure of the reasons why, it could be hormonal, or due to physical changes to the body.  Or it could be that once you become a mother and have this new responsibility in your life, maybe you speak in a slightly lower voice. 

I’ve recently been in Tanzania collecting data on the Hadza tribe. They are one of the last groups of people that hunt and gather, and are really a nice window into our ancestry. If you’re trying to understand the evolution of the human voice, it is useful to study people who lead similar lives to those of our distant ancestors. One of the tasks that we had the tribes people do was to produce fear screams and aggressive roars. When we look at the acoustics, the sounds from the Hadza were very similar to those of student volunteers here at the University of Sussex, collected by PhD student Jordan Raine. So it seems that these things are pretty innate. 

The Future

Ultimately I’d like to have my own lab and study vocal communications in humans but also in other animals, taking a comparative approach.  I’m really inspired by the lab I’m working in here as we study lots of different mammalian species, applying the same theories, to gain a better understanding of why and how we use our voices to communicate.

There are blind mole rats in Africa that I want to study in future, they have this really interesting eusocial system that is incredibly rare for a mammal, plus they’re essentially blind and live underground. I think one could answer a lot of interesting questions by comparing vocal communication in these mammals to mammals that live above ground, can see and aren’t as hyper-social.

 

 

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By: Kirsty Bridger
Last updated: Wednesday, 16 November 2016

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