What do our mouths say about us?


Image: Wellcome Images

As curator Alex Julyan stepped up to the podium to introduce the speakers for the first talk of the evening, she looked composed and at ease. But as she opened her mouth to make the introductions, some of the words came out slightly muddled. It was a tiny mistake, one that most people in the audience are unlikely to have noticed. To those who did, however, her words had betrayed her ever so slightly, suggesting she was perhaps more nervous than she seemed. However composed she looked on the outside, her mouth told a different story.

Poignantly, this was the very subject of the talk that Julyan was introducing. “When we speak, we tend to think about the words we say telling people what we want them to know,” said Sophie Scott, a neuroscientist from University College London who studies the perception of speech, as she began her talk, “but, of course, when we speak, we unavoidably and continuously tell people about who we are, the origins of where we come from, our aspirations, who we would like to sound like, our emotions, our age and our health.”

Scott was speaking at a special one-off event put on by the Wellcome Collection in London. She kicked off the celebration of our oral orifice, titled Get Mouthy, with the help of actor Julian Rhind Tutt, who she has been experimenting on using an MRI scanner.

From these scans, which she displayed for the audience, one of the most obvious things we could see is that Julian has a big head. That, Scott told us, is no coincidence. Most actors and singers have big heads – and that’s not a reference to ego size. She explained that a larger noggin means performers have more room in their mouths to generate accurate sounds. “Amy Winehouse had a massive face,” she pointed out.

Scott had also asked Rhind Tutt to perform a recital inside the scanner, and was surprised to find a great deal of activation of the areas of the brain which are linked to motor activity, rather than speech. Even though he had to lie perfectly still in the scanner, when he was reciting his lines, he seems to have been actively thinking about the way his body would move if he were acting normally, and what that feels like.

The way we talk isn’t just down to our brain structure though – cultural pressures also have a part to play. According to Scott, in the West women tend to speak with a lower voice, whereas in countries where women are more often excluded from the workplace where they have to compete alongside men, they tend to speak in a higher pitch. That pitch also tends to rise when men are around, she noted. Suddenly, I found myself reevaluating the way I speak and wondered to what extent my own voice had been formed by the forces of society. It’s not something I had ever considered before.


Image: Wellcome Images

“We continuously use what someone sounds like to decide what they are like, even if we don’t mean to,” Scott explained. That can have some unexpected effects. In the bizarre phenomenon of Foreign Accent syndrome, for example, people who have some mild brain damage suddenly sound like they have a foreign accent. According to Scott, what’s happening is that the person develops a speech impairment – they may no longer correctly pronounce certain vowel sounds, for example. But instead of simply hearing these errors for what they are, other people interpret this as a specific foreign accent. We are on the lookout for oral clues that help us determine – and label – whether someone is or isn’t a part of our group. With Foreign Accent syndrome, the person isn’t actually talking with a foreign accent, we just hear it as such.

Scott’s talk got me thinking about the things my mouth is capable of saying about me that go far beyond its ability to articulate my thoughts. But talking isn’t the only thing our mouths are good for. Let’s not forget about another important job they do – kissing.

As I explored the rest of the building, I was accosted by a member of staff with an interesting proposition: “Would you like to kiss my card?” I cautiously accepted and was sat down in front of a mirror where I was asked to paint my lips with white face paint and smooch a black card, leaving my kiss-print behind. On the back of the card I had to write a description of a memorable kiss (I’ll spare you the details) before my card joined those of other visitors on display in what was fast becoming an artistic wall of anonymous kiss-and-tell confessions.

I have to confess, I did enjoy having a bit of a read of other people’s kissing experiences, but the activity didn’t even begin to tackle the science of kissing, which is a fascinating subject. For a start, kissing is a strange and unhygienic practice. When you think about it, what’s so pleasurable about exchanging saliva with someone else? And why is it one person’s kiss gets you hot under the collar when another leaves you cold? I wandered off none the wiser, which was a shame. I felt the organisers had missed a trick.

In fact, this was the overall feeling I took away from the night. As a topic for a cultural science event, the mouth was a brilliant choice. The scope for rich content is huge and it should be really fun. Yet, despite a few highlights – Scott’s talk, a Bulgarian choir that could manipulate their voices in wondrous ways (including recreating the sounds of a machine gun), and a virtual baby that can learn to talk using human interactions – I couldn’t help but feel there’s a lot more to say about our mouths. “I hope visitors would go away thinking about their own mouth differently,” Julyan told me. In that respect, I think the event achieved it’s goals. I just think it could have set them even higher.

Source: New Scientist


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