Our research is concerned with the neural and behavioural correlates of human vocal communication, including the perception and production of speech, emotional vocalisations and vocal identity.
We employ a range of techniques in our investigations - behavioural/psychophysical testing, experimental phonetics, functional MRI and M/EEG.
Neural control of vocalisation
We are interested in the mechanisms controlling the production of complex vocalisations in humans - how we speak, imitate and modulate the voice to support our communicative intentions.
T'ain't what you say, it's the way that you say it
Recent work using fMRI (McGettigan et al., in press, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience) explored the neural correlates of vocal identity modulation in speech production, by asking participants to perform spoken impressions of other individuals, as well as regional and non-native accents of English. We found that activation in the left anterior insula was commonly enhanced during conditions in which speaking style was altered (compared with speaking normally). Further, we found that activity in voice and identity processing regions of temporal cortex was greater for the emulation of specific vocal identities compared with the production of generic accents. Follow-up work, in collaboration with the UCL ICN Speech Communication Group, will compare these findings with performance of the same tasks in expert voice artists and impressionists.
Imaging movements in the vocal tract
Speech production involves the careful and precise coordination of the vocal articulators - the lips, tongue, jaw, soft palate - and is a highly developed learned motor skill in humans. In collaboration with researchers from Queen Mary, University of London, we are developing real-time MRI sequences that will allow us to record movements and configurations of the articulators during the production of speech and non-speech sounds with the voice. The videos below show example footage of the production of English vowels, consonants and connected (sung) speech.
Understanding Vocal Expertise
As users of spoken language, the vast majority of human adults are already expert performers of the vocal articulations needed for speech. However, some individuals take this ability further, for example voice artists, linguists and beatboxers. We are interested in exploring the biological bases for speech and non-speech vocal expertise, and how brain function and structure change as new vocal skills are learned. We have been very fortunate to work with several professional beatboxers, including Reeps One - you can read about this work here - and are hoping to develop this line of research with a larger group of experts.
If you are an expert vocalist and are interested in taking part in our research, please visit our contact page for details on how to get in touch.